Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

On Sunday, June 13 we took this photograph to celebrate the beginning of our fifth year as a UUA Welcoming Congregation.

Homily: "Divisive Religion is False Religion" (Delivered 6-13-10)

Sunday, June 13 was a fantastic morning! We celebrated Gay Pride month with a special Pride themed worship service. Our morning began with Jessica Farmer, a community outreach and education specialist with the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, leading a forum about the services that KCAVP provides. Jessica also offered a wonderful testimonial during the worship service.

Here is the homily that I delivered during the worship service:

Divisive Religion is False Religion: Remarks on Entering Our Fifth Year as a Welcoming Congregation

In ministry I am frequently reminded of the divisiveness that exists in our world, the forces of separation that diminish human life. Each year, the early summer brings me into contact with the reality of the divisiveness. In the early summer I perform a lot of wedding ceremonies. This puts me in touch with family dynamics, and, from time to time, these dynamics give me a firsthand glimpse of divisive human behavior. Not always; but sometimes. I’ve seen grandmothers scowl during outdoor weddings: “Why can’t they get married in a church?” I’ve seen uncles frown during church weddings: “Why can’t they get married in the right type of church?” There have been weddings that family members have boycotted, or attended under protest, because the person their relative was marrying belonged to the “wrong” religion, or belonged to no religion, or was the "wrong" race, or fell short in some other way.

And, of course, churches and clergy often further this divisiveness. I have had couples who have come to me because their own minister would not bless them because one was Christian and the other was Jewish, or because one was Catholic and the other was Protestant, or because they lived together before marriage. These couples come to me angry and hurting after being told that their relationship was unworthy of being blessed. They come to me wary and defensive, wondering if I will choose to bless them or shun them.

We live in a divisive world. Over the last few years hate speech, vicious and venomous, has been on the rise. Our politics is divisive; I’ve observed children fighting over a pail in a sandbox who have shown greater civility and dignity than many politicians. Our media is divisive. If you can shout outrageous and offensive things you too can have your own editorial news program. We continue to live with racial divisiveness and xenophobia, where fear and mistrust is sown between those of differing skin tones.

And of course, of course, we continue to live in a nation that insists on dividing people based on their sexual and affectional orientation and their gender identity and expression. Too often being openly gay can get you bullied at school, shunned by acquaintances, and disowned by family members. Being gay is cause for discrimination under the laws of our nation.

As if there was not enough divisiveness in the world, religion has too often done its best to start fires and fan flames: Flames of divisiveness within religious traditions, between Sunni and Shiite, for example. Flames of divisiveness between religious groups: between Christians and Jews, between Hindus and Muslims. Religion has stoked fires of persecution and discrimination against women, against racial minorities, against gays and lesbians. Too often, religion has played the role of the divider, separating the “saved” from the “damned.”

Last month, the Episcopalian diocese in Los Angeles consecrated Mary Glasspool as the first openly lesbian Bishop. Since then leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopalian Church in America is a part, have divisively condemned and attacked this decision. One news report described the “widening chasm” in the Anglican Church.

In my mind, it is the true work of religion to heal divisions, to mend torn relationships, to build understanding, to decrease ignorance and fear, and most especially to help people to better treat their neighbors as themselves. When religion fails in this task, as it so often does, it fails to serve the cause of human need and fails in its holiest endeavors.

I am proud to be a part of a religious tradition that honors human dignity. As early as the 1950s, ministers in the Unitarian Universalist tradition conferred their blessings upon same-sex relationships. Since the 1970s, our tradition has funded staff positions at our national headquarters to promote GLBT awareness and equality. Since the 1970s, we have taught non-heterosexist sexuality education in our churches. In the 1980s, during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Unitarian Universalist clergy and laypeople ministered to those stricken with the AIDS virus at the same time when clergy in some other denominations refused hospital visitation to those suffering from AIDS and refused to perform funerals for those who died from the dread disease.

At a time when the acceptance of gays and lesbians was proving to be an issue that tore apart many mainline Christian congregations, Unitarian Universalists increasingly embraced full inclusion. Our movement created the Welcoming Congregation program, a curriculum designed to educate congregations on how to be fully welcoming and inclusive of LGBT individuals and families. Our movement developed the Beyond Categorical Thinking workshop to help congregations imagine choosing ministers who are not straight, white, men. (Some good it did this church.)

As many other mainline denominations struggled over questions such as ordination of gays and lesbians, Unitarian Universalists established themselves as the most credible religious voice for marriage equality, playing a key role in victories for equal marriage in Massachusetts, Iowa, Washington D.C., and elsewhere.

This morning we look ahead our coming church year, which will be our fifth year as a recognized Welcoming Congregation. Since the Welcoming Congregation program was launched in the mid-90s, almost 600 of our 1,000 congregations have completed the Welcoming Congregation program. And, even those numbers are misleading. In Unitarian Universalism, about half of our congregations are very small, less than about 100 members. For many of these churches it is a weekly fight to open the doors on Sunday morning, much less commit significant volunteer time to a time-intensive program for fostering greater inclusion. Of congregations that are more than 150 members, I estimate the upwards of 95% are Welcoming Congregations.

So, while we celebrate entering our fifth year as a Welcoming Congregation I have to divulge in the interest of transparency that this was something with which this congregation actually struggled the first time we attempted it. In the late 90s, before I became the minister here, the board of this church considered going through the Welcoming Congregation program. They decided against it. What I’ve heard I have only heard at second hand, but from what I have heard, the reason the decision not to go ahead was made had to do with worrying that it might make someone uncomfortable, that it might be a source of fighting and conflict and divisiveness. From what I have been able to gather, nobody really had any idea who that “someone” was or if there was really someone at all. That is the history as I have been able to glean it.

When this church and I began to court each other in the process that would lead me to being called as your minister, one of my biggest reservations, if not my biggest reservation, had to do with this decision not to pursue becoming a Welcoming Congregation. Would I really want to serve a church that shies away from projects and programs out of fear that someone might get upset, that there might be some conflict, or that someone might decide to pack up their toys and go home?

I took it as a challenge. At the end of my first year I gathered a social justice team and we decided to take on the Welcoming Congregation program as a project. Over the next year and a half we went though the program. Nobody cut their pledge in protest. Nobody left the church in anger. It was a breeze. We did what was right. We proclaimed our values. It did not divide us.

And, this is something we should be proud of. Because at around the same time while we were successfully engaging with the Welcoming Congregation program, one of our very liberal neighboring congregations, the most progressive church in Prairie Village, went through the equivalent program in their denomination and they wound up having a hell of a fight. There was bitterness and divisiveness. There were accusations and a general lack of trust. The issue at stake did not have all that much to do with LGBT individuals. The issues were about whether the church would take public stands and declare what it stood for. But, it was hurtful for so many members of that church to see the church fighting about whether it would come out and openly welcome their own families, their own friends, and their own children.

I began my remarks this morning by talking about the early summer as a season of weddings. I opened with these remarks fully cognizant of the shameful and disgraceful fact that in both Kansas and Missouri, as in so many states as well as at the federal level, the laws of our country discriminate against gay and lesbian relationships. Rights are denied. Equal protection under the law is denied. Gay families are treated as second class or third class families.

But, something happened this spring that overwhelmed me with joy. Two of the couples who came to me to enter into a conversation about whether I would officiate at their wedding had a question to ask me. Two of the couples asked, “Do you also bless same-sex unions?” My answer, of course, was a resounding, “Yes! Of course I do.” The question they asked was a litmus test. They did not want a minister who practicing discrimination to officiate at their weddings. By asking this question, these couples were sizing up my integrity. Was I a minister that practiced fairness, inclusion? Or was I a minister that discriminated, that judged that which was not mine to judge?

Are we a church that amplifies the divisiveness in our society? Or, are we a church that heals brokenness, bridges divisions, and promotes greater unity? We pass the test. This is something to celebrate. Let’s keep celebrating!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Sermon: "Patriotism & Memory" (Delivered 5-30-10)

It happens in English classes around our country. Administrators or parents try to ban certain books, removing them from libraries, curricula, and reading lists. It happens in English classes around the country and it happens here. In 2005 a pro-censorship group calling itself “Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools” tried to get the Blue Valley schools to remove dozens of books from classrooms and reading lists. Looking over their list of the books they targeted for removal, I couldn’t help but notice that they were particularly offended by the thought of children reading books written by white women (Barbara Kingsolver, Dorothy Alison), by men of color (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Richard Wright, Rudolfo Anaya) and especially, especially by women of color. The list of books they hoped to have removed included books by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, and Leslie Silko.

It happens in health classes around our country. Administrators or legislators adopt the use of abstinence only sexuality education, despite it being commonly known that these resources contain incorrect and untruthful information, intentional omissions, and a thinly veiled, conservative Christian ideological bent. (In speaking of abstinence, I cannot help but mention last week’s resignation of Indiana congressman Mark Souder. Souder, a married man, father, grandfather, and evangelical Christian, was such a proponent of abstinence education that his congressional website included a video of him being interviewed about the importance of abstinence education. The creepy interview was conducted by none other than his mistress, a staff member of his with whom he was having an extramarital affair.) It happens in health classes around the country and it happens here. The Metropolitan Organization for Responsible Sex Education has been a critic of the abstinence-based approach used by the Shawnee Mission School District and other school districts in our metro area.

It happens in biology classes around our country. State and local school boards in places like Tennessee, and Georgia, and Pennsylvania attempt to undermine or eliminate the teaching of evolution by putting stickers on biology textbooks or by insisting that intelligent design be taught. It happens in biology classes around our country and we know it has happened here in Kansas. With every election of the Kansas school board we run the risk of the balance shifting and Topeka turning into a circus once again.

And, most recently, these educational battles are being waged around the teaching of history and social studies in the state of Texas. In January and March of this year, the fifteen member Texas School Board changed hundreds of state standards for the teaching of history and social studies. The members of the school board made these changes without the assistance of qualified historians, economists, or even high school history teachers. Consider a few of their bizarre rulings:
They removed Thomas Jefferson from a list of political thinkers who have impacted political revolutions from the 1700s to the present day. They added Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin and also removed the term “Enlightenment ideas” from the standards.

They created standards that emphasized the Christian beliefs of the founding fathers and omitted the standard for teaching the constitutional separation of church and state.

They censored the word “capitalism” from the standards because they claimed its critics had given it a bad name. The new standards mandated that capitalism be referred to as “free enterprise.”

They omitted “justice” and “responsibility for the common good” from a list of characteristics of good citizenship taught to first to third graders. By a narrow vote they failed to also remove “equality” as a characteristic of good citizenship.

They ordered that students learn about Communist infiltration of the U.S. government during the Cold War. One school board member claimed that Senator Joseph McCarthy has been vindicated by historians.

The school board proceeded to conduct its own communist witch hunt. At one point the members voted to ban a book for third graders entitled Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, claiming its author, Bill Martin, was a communist. It turns out that a different Bill Martin, not the children’s author, once wrote a book about Marxism.

The board removed Delores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, from a list of historical figures who exemplified good citizenship. Members of the school board claimed that Huerta did not belong on the list because she was a socialist. However, the board kept Helen Keller and W.E.B. DuBois on the list of acceptable historical figures who demonstrated good citizenship because none of the members of the board were aware that Keller was a dedicated socialist or that DuBois was a committed member of the Communist Party.

The removal of Huerta was part of a larger purge of Latinos and African-Americans from the history books. [It is not a coincidence that the group Citizens for Literary Standards targeted minority authors in the Blue Valley School District.] In Texas, a world history standard on leaders who resisted political oppression dropped the teaching of Oscar Romero. One member of the school board argued that Romero did not rise to the same level of importance as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela because he didn’t have a movie made about him. In fact, the movie Romero starring Raul Julia was released in 1989.

Artist Santa Barraza was removed from a list of Texan artists studied in the seventh grade because one of her paintings depicts a woman with naked breasts. Barraza’s paintings, by the way, were admired and frequently displayed in the governor’s mansion when George W. Bush was the governor. I would have to think that when the artistic leanings of George W. Bush are deemed too libertine and salacious for students, it says something about the school board.

Under the revised standards students are now to learn that Upton Sinclair, Susan B. Anthony, and W.E.B. DuBois were anti-American because their writings presented the United States in a negative light.

Under the new standards students will study Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address alongside the inaugural addresses of Abraham Lincoln.

The school board attempted to water down the teaching of the civil rights movement and considered mandating that students learn that one of the unintended negative outcomes of the civil rights movement was, quote, “unreasonable expectations for equal outcomes.” One board member argued in support of teaching that women and minorities owe thanks to men and “the majority” for giving them their rights. Students are also supposed to learn about the “unintended negative consequences” of the Great Society, affirmative action, and Title IX.
And, if any of this leaves you shaking your head, I should mention that I have intentionally decided not to mention many of their craziest and stupidest revisions. I haven’t given you the worst of worst. Not even close to it.

So, what does all of this mean? In the short term, not much. It looks like Texas is going to do the same thing as Kansas and vote the bums out. It seems likely that a new, more moderate school board will undo all of these revised standards. There was a fear that if these standards stood it would pollute the teaching of history in the rest of the country. All Texas school systems use the same textbooks and for a long time textbook companies tended to write all of their textbooks to the Texas standards. (This is the only reason that people who didn’t grow up in Texas still remember the Alamo; textbook companies stood to lose a lot of money if they didn’t make the Alamo a big deal.) However, new publishing technology and the use of the internet means that Texas no longer has the absolute stranglehold it once held over the teaching of social studies in the United States.

So, why then have I spent the entire first half of this sermon talking about the not-so-excellent adventures of the Texas school board? The reason is memory.

History is about memory. It has to do with remembering events, people, movements, objects, cultures, moments, and eras from the past and then interpreting their meaning. And, history has to do with allowing those interpretations and explanations and understandings to inform our lives today in the place we find ourselves in.

Stop for a second and consider what it means to censor Latino historical figures from the history books, especially in a state like Texas whose school-age children are “majority minority.” Stop for a second and consider what it means for a unit on contemporary trends in popular culture to include country music but exclude hip-hop. Stop for a second and consider what it means to say that it is overly negative to teach about the influence of Ida Wells, an African-American journalist who called the nation’s attention to the practice of lynching, or author Upton Sinclair, who called the nation’s attention to the plight of the working class and the rampant corruption present in industry.

Maybe the Texas school board will adopt a sane set of standards. Or, maybe they will continue to make up a history that fits their own dogmas, their own agenda. But, this worries me even if it has absolutely no bearing on how history is taught in Kansas. I can’t subscribe to a position that says, “Do what you will but do not tread on me.” What if every state wrote its own version of history? We’d have a Texas version and a Kansas version and a Missouri version and a New York version. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a value in learning local history. But, if every state’s school board behaved like the one in Texas, our memory, our understanding of our past, and our understanding of ourselves would be fractured and arbitrary.

As Unitarian Universalists, one of the hallmarks of our religious tradition is the speaking of the truth. One of the things that tend to define us as a group is that we are committed to the speaking of truth, even when that truth is unpopular, even when speaking the truth is costly. Those who come to Unitarian Universalism from other faith traditions don’t come to us so much because they don’t believe the teachings of that other faith tradition. No, rather they come because they feel that continuing to attend that other church is an act of dishonesty on some level. (We’re the only Unitarian Universalist church in Johnson County, but there are dozens and dozens of churches with larger numbers of members who would claim a Unitarian Universalist theology. We just get the really honest ones.)

This commitment to truth is so important to us that it is embodied in one of the key sections of my covenant with the congregation. That covenantal agreement declares that the pulpit shall be free and untrammeled and that I am ethically bound to speak the truth as I see it without fear or favor. The corollary to the freedom of the pulpit is the freedom of the pew, the idea that you are not supposed to listen to me and accept what I say just because I say it. Instead, it is your responsibility to pass what I say through the fire of your own thought and to decide for yourselves whether what I say is true.

The Declaration of Independence contains those famous words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” The Declaration of Independence is such an honest document. Most of us think of this text and remember phrases such as “inalienable rights” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But, the bulk of the declaration is a list of grievances, complaints, and indictments against the British government, a declaration of the truth of the situation.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. It is a solemn day set aside for the remembrance of members of the armed forces who died in service to their country. Using the freedom of the pulpit with which I have been entrusted, let me say that Memorial Day has always posed a bit of a challenge for me. What hasn’t been a challenge is having a sense of reverence and respect for the dead whom we honor. What has been challenging is when I feel forced to fit the hundreds of thousands of men and women we remember into some kind of grand, universal narrative.

The truth is that our nation has fought all kinds of wars. They have been revolutionary, a war fought to secure our own sovereignty. They have been civil, a war fought to preserve the union. We have fought wars against the native peoples in our own country. Some of our wars have been imperialist, a word that the Texas school board has banned, opting instead for the word, “expansionist.” Some of our wars have been economic, fought to control routes of trade. Our wars have been fought both for reasons of ideology and they have been based on cold, pragmatic calculations. Wars have fought to support allies and to forge allegiances.

Jon Krakauer’s newest book, Where Men Win Glory, tells the story of the life and death of Pat Tillman. Unless you know a member of the military personally who has died in Iraq or Afghanistan, Pat Tillman’s name is probably the first name that comes to your mind if you are asked to name a casualty. If you’ve never heard of Pat Tillman, let me sketch out his story. He was a star college football player and then a star in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals. Following the 2001 football season he turned down a $3.6 million NFL contract and enlisted in the Army and became an Army ranger. He served in Iraq and then in Afghanistan.

On April 22, 2004, he died in Afghanistan. The top echelons of the United States military orchestrated a cover-up, fabricating the details of his death and lying to his family about the circumstances of his death. Tillman was killed by “friendly fire” and many believe that his death was not accidental but intentional on the part of his fellow soldiers. What is true is that both before and after his death, Tillman was used as a propaganda tool. Conservatives claimed him as an exemplar of conservative values. Liberals portrayed him as a dumb jock. The truth is far more complicated. He was known to read religious texts including the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He described himself as not religious. He was intrigued by the political thought of Noam Chomsky. He was an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq, calling it “illegal as hell.” The truth is he doesn’t fit into a simple narrative.

The story of Tillman is not the point, though. The point is about truth. The greatest way to do a disservice to memory, the greatest way to do a disservice to history, is to lie about it. The greatest way to violate the integrity of the lives of members of the military is to lie about their lives and their deaths. The greatest way to violate the history of our nation is to lie about it. We can and must live with the truth because we can and must learn from the truth, because the truth allows us to actually know ourselves. There is nothing more patriotic than truth. Without truth, memory cannot become sacred.