Monday, October 30, 2006

November Worship: The Future of the Liberal Church

My colleague Rob Eller-Isaacs, co-minister of the Unity-Unitarian Church in St. Paul, MN, wrote these words in his October newsletter column (see page 2):

“My hope is that progressive organizations, liberal churches included, will soon experience a growth surge which echoes that experienced by the religious right in the past 20 years. My fear is we won’t be ready.

“I could offer you a laundry list of ways that liberal churches are ill prepared to welcome all the ‘longing, thirsty souls’ who may soon come our way. I could berate us for thinking so small in a time when the need is so great. I could bemoan our tendency to take pride that we have influence far beyond our numbers. We’ve been proud to be the leaven long enough. It is time for us to be the bread.”
Rev. Eller-Isaacs sees crisis, but also opportunity. Perhaps the opportunity he sees is overstated, is too optimistic, is too unrealistic. But can we do anything else but act as if the opportunity is there? We can’t afford to think that he might be wrong.

In my November newsletter column (see page 2), I wrote about the growth we’ve seen at SMUUCh over the past few years. In all four services during the month of November, we will explore “The Future of the Liberal Church: Its Crisis and its Opportunities.”

On November 5th, I will preach “A Word for Certainty.” My title is a reference to the recent book by Paul Rasor, Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology is the 21st Century. Rasor’s book explores how twentieth century liberal theology tore down the old assumptions and conventions. Having torn down, we are now called to build up. My sermon will be a challenge to us to construct anew.

On November 12th, I will preach a sermon entitled, “After the seeking, what next?” Having talked about a new theology the week before, this week will deal with a new spiritual development and a new ecclesiology. It is possible to find (and be found.) And when we do, we can lead, build, and transform.

While some perceive the crisis in the liberal church as a sign of opportunity, others want to usher in the demise of all religion. My sermon on November 19th will be a response to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. This morning I will offer a “Letter to Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.” If you are interested in reading responses to Dawkins and Harris, you might consider Doug Muder’s review of Harris or Warren Ross’ interview with Harris in the UU World. You may also wish to check out Gilead author Marilynne Robinson’s review of Dawkins in Harper’s Magazine, “Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstasy of Richard Dawkins.”

Finally, on November 26th we will be visiting the town of Holmes’ Prairie, Kansas where through allegory and parable we will be revisiting the themes of this month.

(P.S. Robinson's essay in Harper's is brilliant!)

Sermon: "The Idolatry of the Family" (Delivered 10-22-06)

I bet that when you got an email this week announcing that I would be preaching against family values you wondered what exactly I could be thinking. So, I brought a couple of props with me this morning that I want to use to frame what I will be trying to explain.

The props are both books written by Senators who are up for re-election in just a couple of weeks. The first book came out in 1996 and was written by now New York Senator ( then First Lady) Hillary Rodham Clinton. The book is called It Takes a Village and deals primarily with public policy that affects the lives and welfare of children. Clinton’s book quotes people like Marian Wright Edelman and the back cover of the dust jacket shows a photograph of Clinton surrounded by a racially diverse group of children. The second book came out in 2005 and was written by Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum who is currently trailing by double-digit percentage points in his bid for re-election. The title of his book is an obvious take off on Clinton’s book; his title is, It Takes a Family. Santorum explores what he considers to be the major threat posed to families, namely liberalism. Santorum’s book quotes people like James Dobson and the dust jacket contains artistic renderings of an Asian family and an African-American family.

So, the question I put before you is this: Does it take a family or a village? Now, I know that’s not really a fair question. But it is a question that I hope to use to frame our exploration this morning.

But before I come back to this question, I want to say something about the “family values” discourse that exists in our culture. As far as religion often plays a role in that discourse, I want to explore family values from a religious perspective as well.

Family values, religious values, values voters… this language is nothing new. Indeed, it is often politicized language, coming in to play especially during election seasons. It is my thesis this morning that the concept of the family has not only been made into a political tool, but also into a religious idol, an idolatry of the family. I’ll explain what I mean by that term a little later.

It is normal to hear in this discourse that “families are under attack.” But what exactly is attacking them? If you ask someone like Santorum, who is a conservative Catholic, or James Dobson, who is the head of Focus on the Family, they would tell you that families are afflicted by the consequences of decades of liberal social and economic experiments which have led to relativism, permissiveness, and irresponsibility. (I’m not making this up. That’s their thesis.) If you ask someone like Clinton what families are threatened by, she might say that families are threatened by poverty and inequalities in access to health care, education, and other services.

What I am describing in some sense are the “culture wars.” For example, each side would say that the media has a toxic effect on family life. Santorum might say that the media encourages “sexual deviance”, disobedience, and hedonism: our children cannot stand to be exposed to Janet Jackson’s breast, Teletubbies, or Keith Olbermann. The opposite side’s concern with the media tends to be directed at things such as the effects of advertising on children, messages about body image, and the effects of exposure to violent forms of entertainment. When liberals, or conservatives, or whomever, declare that families are under attack they are often talking about different things.

I bet that what you are expecting me to do is to grapple with what those different things are and separate the wheat from the chaff, the gold from the dross, and the legitimate threats and true family values from those false threats that are not legitimate, but hysterical and ignorant, and those false values that are not holy, but ill. But I am not going to spend all morning dissecting the culture wars. (Although this would be worthy of a sermon all its own.) Nor do I plan to spend a lot more time getting inside these worldviews, critiquing them, and showing why they do or do not work.

Suffice it to say that “Family Values” is a term that means different things to different people. It is a term that usually signifies conservative religious positions. But it is also a term that religious liberals have attempted to reframe and reclaim. Consider the bumper sticker available from the UUA which proclaims, “We are all family & We all have value.” Or the bumper sticker that reads, “Hate is not a family value.”

In 2002, Bill Doherty, a Unitarian Universalist family activist co-wrote a book entitled, Putting Family First. Doherty is a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. In this book, the authors write, “Today’s families are sorely lacking time for spontaneous fun and enjoyment, for talking over the day’s events and experiences, for unhurried meals, for quiet, bedtime talks, for working together on projects, for teaching and learning life skills such as cooking and gardening, for visiting extended family and friends, for attending religious services together, for participating together in community projects, and for exploring the beauty of nature. Not enough time to be a family with a rich internal and external life…. A rich family life alone is not enough … because we need strong neighborhoods, schools, communities of values and beliefs, governments, nations, and a cooperative international community. But none of these, alone or together, can substitute for family life.”

Religious liberals have tried to play the family values game. Putting family first. If you drive down to 143rd Street you’ll find someone who claims to put families first. His name is Jerry Johnston and he pastors the extremely conservative First Family Church. Their church insignia features a stylized picture of a family holding hands. The family is a father and mother, son and daughter – and “very white looking” according to a friend of mine who is a person of color who serves a different church in the same part of town. “Plus,” she says, “as a single person, I always feel excluded driving by that church.” “You’re not the only one excluded,” I quipped back, “exclusiveness is central to their entire theology.”

I then go on to comment to her that “First Family Church” is a funny name for a church because we know what happened to the first family in the Bible: They got expelled from the garden, then Cain killed Abel, and somebody had to be sleeping with mom.

For that matter, the entire Bible is not much help in suggesting positive images of family life. Just about every family in the Hebrew Bible is profoundly dysfunctional, often criminally so. We are in deep trouble if we look to families in the Bible as role-models. (Fortunately, that is not how it is meant to be interpreted. Most characters in the Bible, like characters in Greek dramas, are there for warning, not there imitation.) And why limit ourselves to the Hebrew Bible, with Cain killing Abel, and Abraham trying to sacrifice Isaac, and Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing? The Christian Scriptures exemplify no better family values. In Matthew 10:37 Jesus announces, “Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me.” “Who are my mothers and brothers?” Jesus asks dismissively in Mark 3:33. Luke 12:53 has Jesus stating, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace?… No I have come to bring division: father against son, son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter- in-law against mother-in-law.” And then there is this zinger found in Luke 14:26, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

I want to bring us back to the question, does it take a family or a village? Yes, it is a false dichotomy, a false duality. But, actually, the Bible more strongly emphasizes the village side of things. Biblical theologian Paul Hanson interprets the Bible as a continuous revelation that challenges narrowness and exclusivity in human groups – a family becomes more inclusive to become a tribe, a tribe becomes more inclusive and becomes a people, a people become more inclusive and become a nation, a nation discovers a moral obligation to other nations. According to Prof. Hanson, the Bible should be read as a chronicle of the idea that we require greater inclusiveness.

This is not to say that families don’t face difficulties. If I asked you about difficulties you encounter, the responses might include: geographical dispersion (having family live at great distance); economic factors (the pressures of finance on family); balancing work; balancing all the demands on family from school, sports, and other activities; communication; and reconciling political, religious, and other differences.

But, there are other people who would say that while the family faces hardship, we should not forget that the “village” struggles as well. Several years ago Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone about the decline of civic organizations such as bowling leagues. More recently, a non-partisan organization called the Institute for American Values released a report authored by a group of thirty-three leading psychologists, neuroscientists, and social scientists. The report, titled, “Hardwired to Connect” found that American children suffer from a lack of “connectedness” both in terms of close connections to other people and feeling connected to “moral and spiritual meaning.” The report finds that, “In recent decades the US social institutions that foster these types of connectedness for children have gotten significantly weaker.” This is a problem because human beings and children are hardwired to connect and, the researchers argue, a lack of an outlet for connection leads to antisocial behavior and mental health issues.

The report goes on to recommend the creation of what it terms “authoritative communities” which it defines as, “groups that live out the types of connectedness that our children increasingly lack. They are groups of people who are committed to one another over [extended periods] of time, and who model and pass on at least part of what it means to be a good person and live a good life.” So, what title did the Wall Street Journal select when it wrote about this report? “It takes a village.”

Does it take a village or does it take a family? Clearly, the literal answer is that it takes both. But, on another level, what research like the “Hardwired to Connect” report and Bowling Alone make clear is that we should be very, very suspicious of any discourse that puts families first in the sense either of constructing family as a discreet entity uniquely under-siege or of imagining the family as all-powerful unto itself.

I hope you don’t feel that this argument that I have constructed so far is convoluted or confusing. It is kind of a subtle and ambitious argument: That, in fact, the popular discourse about family values has had the unintended effect of narrowing our minds, of causing us to forget the proverbial village, to neglect authoritative communities and chosen communities.

The definition of idolatry is taking the partial as the whole, confusing the partial with the whole. And so the title of my sermon this morning really refers to the putting-of-all-eggs-in-one-basket, lifting up this idea of family as some be all- end all salvation unto itself. Such a discourse of family values actually constitutes an idolatry of the family.

And please don’t go away saying, “Well, Thom was really disparaging to families this morning.” Or “Thom said families don’t matter.” Because that is absolutely not what I am saying. What I am saying is that the way we’ve constructed a discourse about family is too narrow, that it takes a village and a family. The fact that it takes both and perhaps even more is not an insult to the family.

In this disperse nation… in our hectic society… in this context where public space and civic organizations have often eroded, bought up by corporate entertainment… in this era of corporate religion… this church, our church, represents one of the last, best vestiges of an authoritative community, and one that is not an authoritarian community. It is so important that we are here for each other and, increasingly, for more than just ourselves. So we try to be a “group that lives out the types of connectedness that our society increasingly lacks, a group of people who are committed to one another over [extended periods] of time, and who model and pass on at least part of what it means to be a good person and live a good life.” Amen.

One of the best resources available on UU Family Values is the blog of Rev. Phil Lund, Lifespan Religious Education consultant for the Prairie Star District of the UUA. Browse his archives.

This sermon was the 150th I've preached!

UU Minister on "The O'Reilly Factor"

Rev. Kathleen McTigue, minister of the Unitarian Society of New Haven, Connecticut, was a recent guest on Bill O'Reilly's television program. Click here to watch their "conversation."

You can read more about the work of McTigue and a group of other ministers to oppose torture here.

Click here to read my sermon on torture, delivered on October 8, 2006.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Selected Growth Resources

In my November 2006 DrumBeat column I wrote about the growth SMUUCh has experienced in recent years. Consider this:

In 2002 SMUUCh had 187 adult members, averaged 95 adults in worship, and had an annual budget of $215,000. At the present time we have 290 adult members, average 175 adults in worship, and have a budget of $320,000.

I also pointed out that growth is more than a matter of numbers. "Experts on growth say that numerical growth is just one of four areas in which churches grow. The other three are Maturational (growing in faith and religious identity), Organic (growing congregational systems, programs, and structures), and Incarnational (growing engagement in the wider community.)"

If this is something that interests you, here are some resources for more information:

Growth Workshop at 2006 General Assembly
Michael Durall's Church Consulting page
Nancy Proctor (a UU Church Consultant)

Multi-media Resources (available in my office):
"Breakthrough Congregations 2006": A video showcasing four thriving UU congregations.
"Ideas for Growth": A video about the growth strategy of the Jefferson UU Church in Golden, Colorado.

Check out books by these authors:
Leonard Sweet
Thomas Bandy
Will Easum
Loren Mead
Alice Mann
Gil Rendle

Monday, October 16, 2006

Distinguished Guest Minister

The Worship Committee is pleased to welcome Rev. Suzanne Meyer to SMUUCh on October 28 & 29 as our second annual UU Distinguished Guest Minister.

Rev. Meyer serves the First Unitarian Congregation of St. Louis - the oldest
Unitarian congregation west of the Mississippi. She has been a minister for 24 years and has served our churches in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Georgia. She has written and spoken about topics in church growth, postmodernism, and southern religion and culture. She is a native of Texas and a graduate of Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago.

On October 28 from 2:00 to 4:00 in Fellowship Hall, Rev. Meyer will lead a workshop on the "Roots of Our Faith".

"Do you have trouble describing our way of being religious? Would you like to be able to tell newcomers about the historic roots of our faith? Do you get tongue tied when people ask you to tell them about Unitarian Universalism? Do UUs believe in anything, everything, or nothing at all? How do you handle those kinds of questions."

"Roots" is a four part curriculum designed to help you tell newcomers all about our history and theology. It is an excellent refresher course for long time members as well. On Saturday Rev. Meyer will walk you through the curriculum and show you how to use it with newcomers groups and how to adapt it to suit the particular history of your congregation. You will learn how to describe our way of being faithful in positive ways. If you like "Roots" you can download an electronic copy for free and edit it to tell the story of your congregation.

On Sunday, October 29 Rev. Meyer will preach at both the 10:00 and 11:30 services. The title of her sermon is "Witches."

"What were the witch hunts really all about? Was it religious or economic persecution? If those who were hunted down and killed were not really practitioners of Wicca, who were they and why were they persecuted? And what are th modern day implications of the so-called "witch hunt?"

I hope you will join us on October 28 & 29 for this very special event!

Must Read

As Philocrites points out, last week the Boston Globe and the New York Times each ran numerous stories on aspects of church-state relationships. The Times focused on the liberties that religious organizations enjoy in terms of regulation exemptions, employment practices, and taxation. Perhaps this is material for a future sermon!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Welcoming Congregation

As a part of our Congregational Meeting this Sunday, October 15th, we will be having a congregational vote on whether our congregation wishes to be recognized by the UUA as a Welcoming Congregation.

If you haven't been following along for the past 18 months, let me trace our steps.

● In February 2005 a committee of about 10 members formed to help lead SMUUCh towards becoming a Welcoming Congregation.
● In the Spring of 2005, the Board of Trustees voted in support of this program and to endorse the Welcoming Congregation committee's efforts.
● On April 3, 2005 I spoke in front of over 600 people at rally held at Colonial UCC opposing the Marriage Ammendment in the State of Kansas.
● In April of 2005, the Welcoming Congregation Committee began leading a series of montly workshops based on the Welcoming Congregation Handbook. These workshops continued until October 2005.
● In September of 2005, the Second Sunday Forum featured a panel including a transgender woman, a lesbian woman, a gay man, and the mother of a lesbian woman. The panel discussed a wide variety of topics including their experiences in faith communities. Approximately 80 people attended the forum.
● In the Spring of 2006, the Welcoming Congregation Commitee offered a repeat series of workshops.
● In September of 2006, I preaching a sermon on The Importance of Being Welcoming.
● In October of 2006, Micheline Burger authored a DrumBeat column on the Welcoming Congregation.
● On October 15th, the service is fittingly titled "Where Our Faith Has Stood on Equality." You won't want to miss it!

But there are probably a few people who have questions. If you want to do research, visit the UUA site on the Welcoming Congregation program. Or check out this History Timeline.

Here is my own FAQ based on conversations that I'd had with some members of the church.

Q. How many UU congregations are Welcoming Congregations?
A. Over 500. The Spring of 2006 marked the date when over 50% of UU congregations had gone through the Welcoming Congregation process. Additionally, over 85% of large UU congregations are Welcoming Congregations. The numbers are about the same for mid-size congregations like us. Of the 10 largest UU congregations in the United States, 8 are Welcoming Congregations. Of the two that are not, one is going through the process and the other has been nationally recognized for its public witness challenging homophobia!

Q. Aren't we already welcoming?
A. On one level I believe we are. On another level, we could do some things to clarify our intentions to be welcoming. Consider this: over the past 3+ years I have received literally dozens of calls and emails from people in the community wanting to know if visiting this church is safe for them if they or their family member is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Visiting a church is scary and they want to know if they will be rejected or worse. Becoming a Welcoming Congregation helps to make our invitation clear to all. Remember, to be inviting is at the heart of our mission.

Q. How can we ensure that everybody will be welcoming?
A. We can't. Churches are not perfect places. But we can assert what we endeavor to stand for. I believe this vote is primarily an expression of aspiration. It says what we aspire to be. (In this way, it is like when we say that "Love is the docrtine of our church" every Sunday.) If you want to read a really awesome sermon about this, click here.

Most of all, come to worship this Sunday, October 15th at 10:00 or 11:30 and come to the Congregational Meeting at 12:30. By the way, the worship service will feature several very special testimonials you will be sorry to miss.

Sermon: "Citizens of a Nation that Tortures" (Delivered 10-8-06)

I am outraged and I am ashamed that the government of the nation in which you and I live commits torture. And I am outraged and I am ashamed that the government of the nation in which you and I live would legalize torture through legislation.

Let me back up just a minute. This morning we are going to talk about the gross violations of both human rights and human decency perpetrated by our government in the “War on Terror.” We’re going to talk about extraordinary renditions, secret detentions, Abu Ghraib, Konduz, and Guantanamo Bay. We’re going to talk about habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions. At the same time, it is important to remember that the current administration is not the first in our country’s history to deal in torture. So, we’re also going to talk about the history of torture in our country. We’re going to talk not only about torture abroad; we are also going to talk about the immense danger posed by the present day legal wrangling surrounding human rights and civil liberties, and about how the erosion of civil liberties endangers us. We’re going to talk about the effect that torture has on our society and our community. And we will finish up by talking about what we can do about it.

I speak today as a minister. I am not a military strategist or historian. Nor am I a legal expert. I am also not a shrill pundit, a cable news talking head, a shouting demagogue, or a partisan shill. As a minister, I try to deal in timeless truths. I try to deal in the realm of higher principles, morality, conscience, and ideals as I deal out to you a life passed through the fire of thought. I try to appeal to what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature,” our best-selves. Which is to say that I, like many ministers, am less concerned with what is practical, what’s effective, and more concerned with what is right, what is moral, and what should be. My model for this approach is the Hebrew Prophets.

As one commentator has suggested, when torture is discussed in utilitarian terms or as a matter of legalities, that itself is a sign of profound moral failure. But fortunately, to set up the debate about torture as a debate between practical realities and airy ideals is a false debate. Torture is not only ethically indefensible and morally reprehensible, it does not work!

The literature supports this. The world’s best scholars agree on this. Which only means that the political powers that be ignore more than just the findings of scientists working in the fields of evolution, global climate change, and medicine. They also ignore the historians and political scientists, and those who have studied the history of torture.

Torture does not work. According to leading scholar Darius Rejali, torture represents not a means of gathering intelligence but signals a failure of the intelligence community. Rejali says that practicing torture undermines the intelligence community and results in systemic dysfunction and organizational breakdown. (This should raise red flags to those of us concerned with security who have seen too many signs of systemic dysfunction in recent years.) Some scholars insist that there is not a case in recorded human history where torture has produced even one piece of helpful information that was not as easily available elsewhere. No, instead what torture does achieve is suspect information. This can come in the form of torture which our country oversaw in Central America in the 1980’s in which torture victims implicated innocent neighbors who were then tortured, or the case of an individual in Iraq who under torture admitted to being Osama bin Laden.

It is no surprise that, lacking any historical evidence supporting the use of torture, its advocates turn to a hypothetical case, the proverbial “ticking bomb” scenario. No such case has ever existed. It is an intellectual red herring. The world doesn’t work that way. As Bill Schulz writes, “What the ticking bomb case asks us to believe is that the authorities know that a bomb has been planted somewhere, know that it is about to go off, know that the suspect in their custody has the information they need to stop it, know that the suspect will yield the information accurately, and know that there is no other way to obtain [the information.] The scenario asks us to believe, in other words, that the authorities have all the information that [they never have.]” [Schulz, Tainted Legacy: p. 163-164]

Since the first days of the war on terror, we have often heard the phrase, “winning the hearts and minds of the Arab world.” (Whose hearts and minds we are trying to win is a bit interchangeable.) The phrase has become even a little bit trite and stale – but it is true that good intelligence information is best procured through trust. You need trusted informants. You need to appear worthy of confiding in. Torture undermines the capacity to gather intelligence and drives regular people towards the insurgency. Torture causes far more damage than any good it could ever do “hypothetically.” [Harbury, p. 166]

Abu Ghraib, Konduz, and Guantanamo Bay are but three contemporary examples of US involvement in torture. The history of US torture, though, goes back more than a century, at least, to the US war with the Philippines in which both sides tortured their prisoners of war. As for the law of unintended consequences, consider that after September 11, 2001, the United States sought world-wide cooperation in defeating terrorist groups. The Philippines was highly resistant towards cooperating because of the torture we inflicted a century ago. [Schulz, Tainted Legacy, p. 161-162]

The use of torture was wide-spread in Vietnam, and in the 1980’s the CIA trained governments and guerillas in Central American nations such as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in the use of torture and terror. These “Dirty Wars” were sponsored by the Government of the United States, and Central American torture squads were flown to our soil to train and learn torture techniques at the School of the Americas in Georgia. Besides torture, what do the Philippines, Vietnam, and the “Dirty Wars” have in common? They are all low points of US international policy. Several prominent figures have suggested that we can now add Iraq to the list. Torture never plays well in the history books.

I do want to make a few points about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. First of all, it is common to hear the excuse that those who are responsible for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were, quote, “just a few bad apples” or, quote, “acting out irrationally under stress.” This excuse, by the way, is absolutely bogus. The techniques used by the captors were not spontaneous or random – they were learned. These were the exact same techniques – such as the infamous picture of the hooded man standing on a box with wires attached to his fingers and genitals – that were used in Vietnam and repeated in Guatemala. That posture is actually known as “The Vietnam.” [Harbury, 13] The captors had learned this technique from their superiors.

Furthermore, not only did ranking superiors know that the abuses were going on, they knew about it and knew that it was wrong. So they took precautions to avoid having their own neck out on the line. Jennifer Harbury, director of the STOP Torture Permanently campaign of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, points out that senior officers signed into their posts at Abu Ghraib under assumed names. Who was supervising the Abu Ghraib prison, you ask: the records say it was, quote, John Doe and James Bond. [Harbury, 13] Why would they do this? Because they knew it was wrong. The equivalent to this would be if Ken Lay and Andrew Fastow ran Enron under the names John Doe and James Bond and the receptionist, besides losing her job and her retirement, also went to jail. Someone like Lynndie England, one of the soldiers implicated in prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, is a difficult case. Clearly she violated the human rights of others. But it occurs to me that her superiors and their superiors never had to account for the actions that she and others were most certainly ordered to do. She was left twisting in the wind. She was hung out to dry. She was deserted.

While bullies like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh saw it fit to joke about Abu Ghraib, we might consider that we were allowed to see only a handful of pictures. Members of Congress were shown “eighteen hundred additional photographs and videos not made available to the public, depicting yet worse abuses.” [Harbury, p. 12]

Of course, it is not as if the United States is the only nation to practice torture. Amnesty International suggests over 130 violate the human rights of prisoners. [Schulz, Tainted Legacy, p. 156] But, should we aspire to be in the bottom sixty-sixth percentile? Should we aspire to keep company with The Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Burma? And should the leaders of the free world wish to be held in the same bad company as a group of warlords, thugs, and two-bit dictators?

If we can look past the fear-mongering and security-baiting, torture turns out to be a kind of cowardice. If it were not, then why sign in under assumed names? Then why the legal-wrangling to protect the architects and designers of torture, and those giving the orders? If torture was heroic then shouldn’t its designers be taking credit? And why the secret detention centers? And why the “ghost prisoners”? And why the extraordinary renditions? In this practice, a person is taken into custody and transported to a place like Syria, where the torture and interrogation are outsourced, but overseen by a member of the CIA. [Harbury, p. 6-9] Torture has always been a dirty secret, so ugly that, when seen in the light of day, it is always denounced. Torture has no place in a transparent democracy.

If this morning inspires you to learn more, I have listed all of my resources and references on my blog. One of the links is to a wonderful essay by Bill Schulz. Rev. Schulz was President of the UUA during the 1980’s and they went on to direct Amnesty International for over a decade. Schulz’s essay, which I heard delivered in person last June, deals with the theological issues of human nature and evil which torture raises. I want to talk about a different set of issues that torture raises. How am I, how are you, affected by being a citizen of a nation that tortures?

It is a mistake to think that torture only involves the application of pain, suffering, and anguish to another human being over a discreet period time. The effects are felt through networks of contact and for years and lifetimes later. Torture victims, according to the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, Minnesota, suffer, often permanently, from insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, chronic anxiety, inability to trust, deliberate self-injury, violent behavior, substance abuse, depression, and paranoia. [Harbury, p. 145-149] Families of torture victims suffer extensive emotional pain, not knowing anything about their family member. [Harbury, p. 149-152] Torture also destroys communities. It breeds mistrust and paranoia. Obviously torture also destroys goodwill. Torture does so much to turn popular opinion against our country and our servicemen and -women who are in the line of fire. Defenders of torture say that the torture of one may save one hundred lives. But this math is incomplete, short-sighted. Torture of one may, conceivably, save the lives of one hundred but in so doing cost the lives of one thousand. [Schulz, Tainted Legacy, p. 162]

Through sinister logic, torture on one side excuses torture on the other, though it does not legitimate it. Torture destroys any claim to the moral high ground. Our refusal to practice torture is our only ground for condemning it. Mistreatment of enemy combatants on our side endangers our soldiers and civilians who may be taken captive. You may say that al-Qaeda or the Taliban would certainly not live by international law, and it is true that they don’t. But it because they don’t and we do that we are justified in condemning them!

That is not the end of it. Torture actually hurts the torturer as well. By following orders, they face a life that too will never be whole again. [Harbury, p. 152-157] And finally, torture hurts communities back home. Those who committed or witnessed torture abroad do come home. They are left to find a way to reintegrate into this society. Often, the price that is paid is substance abuse and domestic abuse; sometimes it is other kinds of unthinkable, anti-social violence. Darius Rejali writes, "Those who authorize torture need to remember that it isn't something that simply happens in some other country. Soldiers trained in stealthy techniques of torture take these techniques back into civilian life as policemen and private security guards. It takes years to discover the effects of having tortured. Americans' use of electric torture in Vietnam appeared in Arkansas prisons in the 1960s and in Chicago squad rooms in the 1970s and 1980s."

Of course, it would be one thing if one branch of our government practiced torture outside the bounds of law. In such a situation, it would be incumbent on the other branches to hold accountable the renegade branch. But, our current situation is something different. Under the recent bill passed by the House and Senate in the last week of September, 2006, torture is legalized and the rules of evidence and habeas corpus are deemed irrelevant. Let me spell this out for you: the Bill authorizes the government to use interrogation techniques that inflict “serious pain.” The Bill also authorizes the government to suspend Habeas Corpus, to avoid American legal standards on warrants, and to deny the accused the right to examine evidence presented against them. This is not only a violation of the Constitution. It is a violation of the Western legal tradition dating back to the Magna Carta!

I see no good check or balance, no legal or moral restraint, other than the sheer whim and fancy of whoever is giving the orders. I do not trust any President with that kind of authority. It is frightening and it is outrageous and it is shameful.

This legislation has another purpose as well. It is called cover your own tail. As a justification for the Iraq War, President Bush spoke during a State of the Union Address about Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers and rape rooms. But I dare you to go read a depiction of US torture practices. I dare you to read about Konduz, Afghanistan, or Abu Ghraib. I dare you to read the autopsy report of those who died at the hands of American torture. I’ve spared you the gory details and the vivid imagery this morning out of a desire to build my case out of reason and not sensationalism. However, if you can read those depictions without physical revulsion, without faintness, without sleeplessness then you are a colder person than I. There is a word for what these reports describe: crimes against humanity.

What can we do? First of all, learn all you can. On my blog I have a bibliography with lots of resources. Second of all, join the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and participate in their STOP Torture Permanently campaign. Or join Amnesty International. Third, become politically involved. And by the way, the vote on the Torture Bill was not a strictly partisan vote. There are politicians on both sides of the aisle who need to be told how shameful our nation’s involvement in torture is. And finally, act locally. Talk with those in the armed forces about their experiences; talk with those with families in Afghanistan and Iraq. Find out stories. Keep memories alive. Help to uncover the truth in this day when so much truth is hidden.

I want to end with this quote from the conclusion of a legal decision in Israel as that nation decided to officially ban torture:

“The decision opens with a description of the difficult realities in which Israel finds herself security-wise. We shall conclude this judgment by readdressing that harsh reality. We are aware that this decision does not ease dealing with that reality. This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it. Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand. Preserving the Rule of Law and recognition of an individual’s liberty constitutes an important component in its understanding of security. At the end of the day, they strengthen its spirit and its strength and allow it to overcome its difficulties.” [quoted in Harbury, p.169]

Our country may not always be free. But it is best when it is. Not all churches are free. Our church is and the freedom of the pulpit that you have entrusted to me ensures that you are free to hear sermons like these, delivered without fear of censor.


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Friday, October 06, 2006

Shameless Mention

This was just mentioned on the UU Ministers email list:

According to Hallmark, Sunday, October 8 is Clergy Appreciation Day.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Resources for October 8th update

On October 8th I will be presenting a sermon entitled "Citizens of a Nation that Tortures." With new legislation moving towards approval, this will certainly be a timely message. Click Here to view resources.

Sermon: "How to Live a Wretched and Miserable Life" (Delivered 10-1-06)

In preparation for this morning’s remarks, I was doing a free association brainstorm on the idea of grudges… “holding grudges”, “keeping grudges”, and so on. And from out of nowhere the phrase “grudge match” entered my mind. So indulge me for just a moment, because the first sermon illustration comes from professional wrestling.

I’m serious here. Pay attention. Did you know that professional wrestling story lines involve feuds between characters? At first, those feuds are dramatic. But over time they are bound to become stagnant. And when that happens, the characters will have a grudge match, a final contest, after which, irrespective of outcome, the feud is to be set aside so that each character can be liberated to pursue new avenues of development. Let me say that again, “the feud is set aside so that each character can be liberated to pursue new avenues of development and possibility.” When I thought about this, I was amazed. How many of us are less adept than professional wrestlers at releasing ourselves from the bondage of our grudges?

I am deeply beholden to John Klozik, a member here, who delivered a comprehensive and powerful sermon on forgiveness about a month ago. John presented perspectives from world religions, from popular psychology, and from his own experience that described not only the nuts and bolts, but also the purposes and meanings of forgiveness. My own approach this morning is much more modest. I simply want to talk about grudges and the importance of releasing yourself from the bondage of holding onto them. To do this, I want to draw not so much from the wisdom of professional wrestling, but from wisdom of the Jewish tradition. And I want to talk about the importance of setting aside grudges from a personal perspective, a community perspective, and a world perspective.

In the Jewish scriptures, the law is set forth in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the second half of Exodus. Taken as a whole, it would seem that there is common theme running through many of the laws against things going on an on for unspecified periods of time. For example, there are extensive laws dealing with debt and the forgiveness of debts. Every seven years, according to Jewish law, debts and obligations are supposed to be released. Every forty-ninth, or seventh-seventh year, is to be a Jubilee year. What this entails is a little bit uncertain according to scholars, but some have interpreted this to mean that there should be a complete redistribution of all property in society. Things are not meant to go on and on without end.

In the book of Leviticus there is a commandment against permanently marking your flesh. It is from this passage we get the Jewish law forbidding tattoos. But this injunction against inscribing meaning into flesh is another way of saying things are not meant to go on and on without end.

And then we come to the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the day of atonement. It is the day of reaching out to those with whom you have not set things right. It is a day of contrition, forgiveness. The most important aspect of Yom Kippur observances is the recitation of the Kol Nidre prayer. The Kol Nidre prayer admits that in the coming year we will all make vows that we will not keep, promises we will not live up to, and that we all will inevitably fall short of what we might be expected to do or be. And for that we ask to be forgiven. But even in this there is a sense that things should not drag on. Yes, we’ll disappoint one another. But we shouldn’t dwell on it. We should move on. Things are not meant to go on and on without end.

The play that the Coming of Age class presented for us earlier in the service is quite remarkable. Author Barbara Marshman really hits the nail on the head. She describes the citizens of “Grudgeville.” At first they took great pride in their grudges. It was almost a competition to see who could shoulder the biggest. People came from far away to marvel: “My goodness, look at the size of those grudges!” But soon enough, the grudges ceased to make them feel special. The grudges made them feel miserable and people generally stayed away from Grudgeville because it was a miserable place. Over time, the citizens of Grudgeville grew to accept their burdens as a part of them. They forgot how to put them down – some of them even forgot how they formed their grudges in the first place! The story implies that holding grudges is the key to living a wretched and miserable life.

Is this too simplistic? Is this too trite? Say “I’m sorry” when you’ve hurt somebody’s feelings. Say “I forgive you” when someone has hurt you. I don’t think the order is all that important. After all, on Yom Kippur observers ask forgiveness for transgressions not yet committed and forgiveness for the breaking of vows not yet made.

We all know the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would be treated.” There’s also, according to one of my colleagues, the Platinum Rule: “Treat others as they want to be treated.” And then there is my favorite, a liberal paraphrase of Jesus’ words: “I don’t need to like you. I don’t need to agree with you. But I do have to love you as much as either God or myself, whichever I love more.”

I hope my title this morning has not been too much of a bait and switch. There are all sorts of ways to live a wretched and miserable life. I could turn this into a sermon series. But a certain way to do this is to hold on to your grudges.

We need only look at the world, rife as it always is with ethnic strife, religious intolerance, and the hostilities passed down by groups over generations. How many younger generations willingly pick up the burdens of their parents and grand-parents and ancestors, adopting those grudges as a force that gives life meaning? A few weeks ago, Rev. Scott Tayler, co-minister of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York delivered a sermon on a related point. Rev. Tayler preached on what he called the myth of salvation by elimination – which is the idea that the world would be great and we would be safe if we could only get rid of all the bad people. (It is not possible to do this.) Tayler’s sermon suggested that since we can never get rid of all the bad people, we should learn to love our enemies.

In the same way, and more germane to this morning’s topic, we may be seduced into the belief that our lives would be wonderful if only all of the people who have hurt, disappointed, wronged, or offended us would only realize how very wrong they were, make amends to us with interest, and berate and castigate and flagellate themselves mercilessly for having had the gall to ever have dared to offend us. Or we could just learn to say, “I forgive you.” And learn how to mean it. Love your enemies. Forgive those who disappoint you.

This is of course a radical sort of thing. Some would say, “You know, I am a forgiving person. I have no problem with forgiveness. And as soon as that other person comes to me and makes a sincere and utter apology I’ll gladly forgive.” Is contrition a pre-requisite for forgiveness? I don’t think has to be is. I think their can be a dialectical relationship where forgiveness inspires contrition.

Remember, the Lord’s Prayer goes:

“Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”


“Forgive our trespasses that we’ve apologized for as we forgive those who have apologized for trespassing against us.”

Forgiveness without contrition: Yes, it is radical. And no, it is not fair. If you really want to try something radical, try apologizing to someone for holding a grudge against them!

It is not just the world that could use a lesson in letting go of grudges, offering forgiveness, inspiring contrition. This is actually something that churches could stand to improve at: Ideally, the church should be a crucible, a context, a petri-dish for us to learn to become forgiveness warriors, acolytes of acceptance, and crusaders in love. Church should be place to practice taking spiritual risks, a place to always assume the best and try to see the best in other people. But, like all imperfect institutions on this earth, churches don’t always live up to their highest principles. They’re human in this regard. We’re human in this regard.

I will always remember the first sermon I preached. It was that prime, high-attendance date of the Sunday after Christmas… during a snow-storm… but a few hearty souls attended. I delivered an earnest sermon about New Year’s resolutions. During the sermon I stuck the “love your neighbor as your yourself” line in there. In the receiving line after the service, one individual passed me and glared. “You don’t know my neighbors. I hate my neighbors and you can’t tell me to love them.”

People hold their grudges, even in church. I won’t go to that because they might be there. I can’t do this because of him, because of her. I don’t go to church their any more because of that minister, that minister who was the minister five ministers ago, or three ministers ago, or now.

The holding of grudges, the keeping of score, the refusal to forgive always represents a profound failure of religious practice. And, since it is the job of the church to help teach us to forgive, the holding of grudges represents a second kind of failure.

This may be kind of an unusual topic to introduce on a Sunday when we welcome New Members into the congregation. But my message for those new members, and those not yet members… and those who have been members for some time, is this:

Allow this church community to be a context for your spiritual growth. Let this church be a context for expanded sympathies, expanded concern, and expanded acceptance. Let his church be a context for experimentation with greater generosity – of time, talent, and treasure. Let this church be a context for the growth of not only your mind, but also your heart. And let this church be a context for the growth of compassion. Practice forgiveness. Practice laying your burden down.

Churches are not immune from error. They are not perfect. They are made up of real, flesh-and-blood people, after all! Which is a good thing, because each and every one of you is a real, flesh-and-blood person. As am I. And we’re here, with warts and blemishes, and with so much beauty to be found in all the vicissitudes and struggles of life. Amen.