Jan 24, 2015
I am delighted to announce two new preaching dates:
March 15, United First Parish Church (Unitarian), Quincy, MA
May 10, The First Church in Salem, Unitarian, Salem, MA.
Jan 19, 2015
Yesterday during coffee hour someone came up to me quite upset about my support of the protestors who blocked off I-93 on Thursday. I was going to try to articulate a response on my blog but I instead found a piece on Dr. Rebecca Haines's blog, "Discrediting #BlackLivesMatter with ambulance concerns is disingenuous. Here’s why," that more-or-less said whatever I would have to say. The key passage, for me, in the post is:
During baseball season, ambulances are routinely prevented from reaching major Boston hospitals in an efficient manner. I wonder whether the people who are attempting to discredit the #BlackLivesMatter protest also speak out against the Red Sox and their fans for blocking traffic? After all, although the intent of the Red Sox fans and these protesters differ, the outcome is the same: Predictable though Red Sox traffic may be, emergencies are by nature unpredictable, and emergency vehicles do become stuck on their way to the Longwood Medical Area on game days.
You can read the balance of the post here. While you're at you might check out "To the People Complaining About the Inconvenience of the Highway Shutdowns" by Patrick M DeCarlo.
Jan 18, 2015
preached January 18, 2015 at the Winchester Unitarian Society, Winchester, MA
There is a particular scenario that I have experienced several times since I left my pulpit in Cleveland, went back to graduate school and started on my career as an itinerant preacher. It runs something like this: I receive an invitation to lead worship for a wealthy, overwhelming white, suburban, Unitarian Universalist congregation like this one. The person issuing the invitation asks me to preach about social justice. I deliver a sermon about how religious liberals should respond to this country’s racist legacy. I use the word murder to describe the killings of black men like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.
After the service, during coffee hour, a member of the congregation comes up to me and tells me that he was offended by my sermon. The member always fits the same profile. He is a straight white male over the age of seventy. He tells me that I was wrong to use the word murder to describe the violent deaths of black men and boys like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Amadou Diallo at the hands of the police.
His complaint appears in the form of a question, “Did you sit on the trial jury? Where you part of the grand jury? Do you work for the FBI?” This question is followed by a statement, “Because you are talking like you have some access to knowledge that the rest of us do not. It is the jury who decides if the police officers that killed Sean Bell are guilty of murder. It is the federal government who determines if the policemen who killed John Crawford III violated his civil rights. Your rhetoric is dangerous, incendiary and unfair.”
Perhaps that is true. I don’t know what those juries know. What I do know is that in this country white police officers kill black men at the rate of two, three, or four a week. I know that the rate of police killings of African Americans now exceeds the rate of lynchings in the first decades of the twentieth century. I know that police officers are very rarely held accountable for any of these deaths.
In ethics we make a distinction between the general and the particular. The general, black men and boys are frequently the victims of unjustifiable police homicides. The particular, that police officer murdered that black man. I might be erroneous in stating that Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. I am not erroneous in claiming that police officers frequently get away with murder.
Consider the data. The web site FiveThirtyEight reports that grand juries almost always return indictments. That is, they almost always return indictments except in the case of police shootings. In 2010 U.S. attorneys convened 162,000 grand juries. Only 11 failed to indict. Yet, in Dallas, Texas, from 2008 to 2012, grand juries investigated 81 police shootings. They returned only one indictment. In Huston, Texas, a police officer hasn’t been in indicted since 2004. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, reports that from 2004 to 2011 police officers shot and killed more than 2,700 people but only 41 of them were charged with murder or manslaughter.
The few police officers that do stand trial are convicted at a far lower rate than members of the general public. Their accounts of events are more likely to be believed by juries than the accounts of ordinary citizens. By the time we get to the bottom of the statistics only about half of a percent of police officers that kill someone while on duty are ever held legally accountable. Put differently, a cop who kills someone while on duty has only a 1 out of 200 chance of being convicted for any crime. That suggests that systematically they get away with murder.
Perhaps you do not find such evidence convincing. Perhaps you agree with my coffee hour interlocutor and find my language, my use of the word murder, to be troubling. Perhaps you think that I am being unfair and unsympathetic to the police. They are, after all, public servants. Their job is to keep people and property safe. Well, if you think that then my reply is that it is the job of the preacher to be provocative. If you find yourself provoked I hope that you will ask yourself why. I suggest that it might have something to do with privilege, the color of your skin, your zip code and the contents of your wallet. There is a reason why my coffee hour interrogator is a white male. There are also reasons I have coffee conversations of this type when I preach in places like Carlisle, Lexington, and Milton. Just as there are reasons why no one troubles me about my choice of words when I preach in Copley Square or Dorchester.
I want to trouble you this morning. In his famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Martin King identified white moderates as one of the greatest obstacles to racial justice. He wrote, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate... the white moderate... is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” Elsewhere, he went even further, saying, “riots are caused by nice, gentle, timid white moderates who are more concerned about order than justice.”
I want to trouble you this morning. I want you to consider that even if I might be wrong with the particular I am right with the general. Our justice system sanctions the frequent legal unjustifiable murder of black men and boys. And that has to change.
I want to trouble you this morning. I want you to recognize that our society has developed what Michelle Alexander has labeled the New Jim Crow. This country is the heir to a legacy of racism that stretches back more than four hundred years. That legacy will not disappear if we close our eyes to it. Martin King told us that there are some things in our social system to which we ought to be maladjusted. We ought to be maladjusted to the fact that police kill black men at more than three times the rate they kill whites. We ought to be maladjusted to the fact that poverty rates for African Americans are twice those of European Americans, that the average white family was twenty times the wealth of the average black family, and that African Americans live, on average, four years less than European Americas. The election of the country’s first black President has not ushered in a post-racial era. We ought to be maladjusted.
I want to trouble you this morning to ask the question that people asked Martin King fifty years ago in Montgomery, Alabama. They asked him, “How long will it take?” You might remember his reply, “it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow. How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
I want to trouble you and suggest that we know better than to give King’s answer. Change might be coming but we are a long ways from the tipping point. King might have seen the mountaintop, he might have seen the promised land, but for us they are still in the distance.
Let us not despair. There are reasons to be inspired. We can take inspiration from today’s new civil rights movement. And we take can inspiration from movements of the past. This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Selma, the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act. This year we also celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War and, with it, slavery. Abolitionists, antislavery activists, civil rights organizers, and members of today’s new civil rights movement share an important commonality. They all linked, or link, personal transformation with social transformation. Recast in religious language, they understood and understand that social salvation begins with personal conversion. Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams defines conversion as a “fundamental change of heart and will.”
To end racism, white moderates will need to undergo a fundamental change of heart and will. Such a change is often prompted by an unusual event or encounter. We had just such an event here in the Boston suburbs this past week when protesters shut down I-93. I imagine some of you were inconvenienced by the four and a half hour blockage of the highway. Maybe you feel, like Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Deval Patrick, that the new civil rights movement is disruptive. Or you resent the four and a half hours of traffic snarls that the action brought on. Four and a half hours because that was the length of time police in Ferguson, Missouri left Michael Brown’s body on the street after Darren Wilson shot him. You might do well to consider these words from the protestors, “Boston is a city that stops, on average, 152 Black and brown people a day on their ways to work, to their homes, to school and to their families. Is that not ‘disruptive’? Boston is the third most policed city per capita in the country. Is it not disruptive for Black and brown residents to live under this extensive surveillance, under police intimidation and brutality?”
Conversion brings about a change in perspective, a shift in a point of view. If you are white and relatively privileged try seeing the society from a black or brown point of view. Imagine that you are Michael Brown, unarmed and shot with your hands up in the air. Imagine that you are Eric Garner, choked to death by a police officer after saying “I can’t breath” eleven times. Imagine that you have to give your son the Talk, the words of warning many black parents offer their children. “If you are stopped by a cop, do what he says, even if he's harassing you, even if you didn't do anything wrong. Let him arrest you, memorize his badge number, and call me as soon as you get to the precinct. Keep your hands where he can see them. Do not reach for your wallet. Do not grab your phone. Do not raise your voice. Do not talk back. Do you understand me?” Imagine these things and you might undergo a conversion.
One of my advisors at Harvard, John Stauffer, wrote a book a few years back called “The Black Hearts of Men.” In it he chronicles of the story of four friends, two black men and two white, who struggled together to end slavery. You might recognize some of their names: John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, and James McCune Smith. During his research John discovered that these abolitionists, following McCune Smith, understood that there was key to ending slavery and racism. They believed, John writes, “whites had to learn how to view the world as if they were black, shed their ‘whiteness’ as a sign of superiority, and renounce their belief in skin color as a marker of aptitude and social status. They had to acquire, in effect, a black heart.”
It was Douglass’s confidence in his white friends ability to achieve such black hearts that enabled him to nurture hope in the decades of struggle that led to emancipation. He might admit, “that the omens are all against us,” as he did in the wake of 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, which effectively stripped all African Americans, free or enslaved, of their rights. But he could proclaim, as he did in the same speech, “Oppression, organized as ours is, will appear invincible up to the very hour of its fall.”
Conversion has long been a central concern of religious communities. Unitarian Universalists like us are often made squeamish by the term. We dislike the way religious fundamentalists use it to direct attention away from this worldly concerns and onto other worldly concerns. Let me suggest that, nonetheless, conversion should be a principal interest of ours. Our congregations should be sites of conversion, sites for a change of heart. In our religious communities we should challenge each other to develop the empathy necessary to see the world from a different point of view. If you are white, try seeing the world as if you were black.
Conversion is one of the principal reasons why some religious communities have been at the forefront for social change. Martin King understood this. He understood that we have to link our personal transformation to our process of social transformation. Religious communities are uniquely positioned to do so. What other institution in our society can prompt us to both examine our hearts--to ask us how we are seeing the world--and to challenge us to stand together to do something about the pain that we find there when we do?
I am practical person. And so, before I close I want to offer you a few simple suggestions that might prompt you on your way to conversion and help you mobilize your congregation. Maybe you already do these things. If you do, keep doing them. If you don’t then consider making a late New Years resolution and trying one of them.
For a conversion to happen, you have to expand your perspective. And that means getting to know people who have different perspectives than you do. The Washington Post reports that three quarters of European Americans have no African American friends. Zero. None. Now, I admit that making friends is difficult. Most people I know tend to fall into friendships, they meet people through work, in their neighborhood, or at their church. If you are white and you work at a predominately white workplace, live in a largely white neighborhood and go to a mostly white church then chances are most of your friends will be white.
My suggestion? Get out a more. Nurture an interest in cultures other than your own. Read books by African American authors. Start listening to hip hop, jazz, afro pop... Attend cultural events in African American neighborhoods. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It is never too late to start. There’s a wonderful interracial Afrohouse dance night I attend in Boston called Uhuru Africa. There are regularly people in their seventies on the dance floor. If you haven’t done so already, mobilize your church. Develop a partnership relation with an African American congregation. Do things regularly with them. Join an urban interfaith coalition. Participate. If you put yourself out there you will eventually expand your network. It might not be easy, it might not be comfortable, but it will happen.
In addition, to expanding your perspective you have to ask questions and you have to commit to actions. Ask yourself why you are comfortable or uncomfortable in certain situations and with certain people. Ask yourself how and why you benefit from our current social system. Ask yourself who the criminal justice system works for. Ask yourself why police officers so often get away with murder. And as you ask yourself questions think about how you can act. Can you participate in the new civil rights movement? There’s a march tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. in downtown Boston starting at the State St. Station. What can you do as a congregation? How can you mobilize your resources to transform the racist, white supremacist, criminal justice system? Can you urge your lawmakers to spend money on schools rather than prisons?
I know that there is more wisdom in this room than I have. I know you can figure what you need to do. The time for conversion, the time for a change of heart, is now. It is time to say no one more. Not one more unarmed black child shot and killed by a police office while playing on a playground. Not one more unarmed black man shot and killed while shopping in a grocery store. As you consider my words, I offer you these by Martin King: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
May we hear these words and upon hearing them act.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Jan 13, 2015
I am excited to announce a number of upcoming preaching gigs:
January 18, 2015, Winchester Unitarian Society, Winchester, MA
Febuary 8, 2015, First Parish in Milton—Unitarian Universalist, Milton, MA
Febuary 22, 2015, Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford, Medford, MA
March 1, 2015, Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA
March 29, 2015, Theodore Parker Unitarian Universalist Church, West Roxbury (Boston), MA
May 3, 2015, First Unitarian Church of Worcester, Worcester, MA
Nov 25, 2014
In the 1920s and the 1930s the NAACP used to hang a flag outside the window of its offices in Manhattan with the words “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday." The narrative often told in histories of the civil rights movement is that lynching declined and was outlawed in the 1960s. Lynching is often described as extra-legal punishment; that is punishment that takes place outside of the bounds of the law. During the age of lynching the murderers of people of color were frequently exonerated for their actions by courts of law.
The killing of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson’s acquittal fits a pattern. A black man is killed by police, or in Trayvon Martin’s case under legal pretenses, and a court fails to convict the killers. I refuse to believe that the verdicts in all of these high profile cases in recent years have been untainted by white supremacy. I refuse to believe that justice has been served. I want to raise the questions: Is it time to bring back the word lynching to describe the killings of black men by police officers? Can we say that Michael Brown was lynched? What about Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice?
Lynching is an act of public violence. It is legally sanctioned by the society in which it takes place, it does not matter that this occurs after the fact. Lynchers escape legal punishment for their acts. Michael Brown was killed in public. His killer will not be punished. His body was left in the street for four hours. It was put on public display, images of it appeared throughout the media.
Many people might argue that using the language of lynching to describe what happened to Michael Brown is unnecessarily inflammatory. I disagree. By using the word people who care about justice can signal that justice does not reign in the United States and that the civil rights movement did not bring racial justice to this country. We do not live in a post-racial society. There is a direct line of continuity that can, and should, be drawn from slavery through Jim Crow to the present day.
More than fifty years ago, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. made the distinction between unjust and just laws. He wrote, “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” King wrote these words to defend his civil disobedience against white supremacy in the 1960s South. A law that consistently acquits police officers of the killing of black men is an unjust law. It is a law that stands outside of any moral law. It must be overturned. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo... a man was lynched yesterday.
Nov 22, 2014
My friend Rev. Ian White Maher stirred up a bit of conversation when I published his guest post "A More Beautiful World: The Challenges of Unitarian Universalist Military Chaplaincy." In addition to substantive conversation on Facebook, Rev. Tom Schade over at The Lively Tradition and Rev. Cynthia Kane at Captain Reverend Mother posted responses. I am still formulating my own thoughts on the comments Ian and I have received from Kane, Schade and others and plan to write something in response to their responses in the next week or two. In the meantime, I hope people will continue to reflect on Ian's important piece and the conversation it has started. If anyone knows of other bloggers who have written in response to it please contact me so I can post links to their pieces.
Nov 19, 2014
Tomorrow I am going to participate in a panel at Collegium on the Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship. Here are the remarks, based largely upon the survey I conducted, I prepared for the conference:
My first impulse when asked to participate on this panel was to survey the current state of Unitarian Universalist scholarship. I am familiar with most of the scholars in our movement. Instead of providing an overview of their work I thought it would be interesting to ask some of my ministerial colleagues who they read. I conducted an on-line survey. Seventy-four people, including a dozen who identified as lay people and another eight who primarily identified as academics, responded. I won’t claim that the survey is scientific but I do think that it tell us something interesting things about the current state of Unitarian Universalist scholarship.
The question “Who are the five most influential Unitarian Universalist or liberal religious thinkers today?” generated a clear consensus. More than half my respondents included Rebecca Parker’s name on the list. Five other scholars were named by at least twenty percent of respondents: Mark Morrison-Reed, Tom Schade, Paul Rasor, Thandeka and Dan McKanan. Three others were offered up by at least ten percent of respondents: Cornel West, Forrest Church, and Sharon Welch.
There are two things that I think are interesting about this list. It is not made of exclusively of academics and there is a disconnect between how influential a scholar is within the academy and how influential they are within our movement. To the first point, Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church are not traditional academics, they are, or were, scholar ministers. Tom Schade is a blogger. Among the academics named only three are, or were, engaged full time in theological education. No one currently on the Starr King faculty makes the list and only one of Meadville’s full-time faculty is there.
Second, I compared my list against google scholar’s citation tracker to see whom amongst is read by the wider academy. Hands down the three most cited Unitarian Universalist scholars were, in order of citation count: Sharon Welch, Anthony Pinn and Rebecca Parker. Interestingly, two of the scholar ministers received about the same number of citations as established academics: Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church. Less surprisingly, the blogger on the list had not been cited by any scholar.
One conclusion that might be drawn from this data is that the site of scholarship within our tradition will continue to be situated both inside and outside of the academy. As Dan mentioned, there are thirty five either recent graduate PhD or doctoral students. Many of us, I suspect, will not pursue jobs within the academy. Those who opt for a non-academic career will not necessarily leave their scholarly work or their ability to influence either Unitarian Universalism or the academy behind. Indeed, they may be uniquely positioned, as Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church were, to have some impact on their academic fields while at the same time nurturing future generations of Unitarian Universalist religious leaders.
Another is that the people we scholars perceive as influential are not necessarily the same people that those in our movement conceive of as influential. For the past decade there have been a variety of blogs that have had transient but significant on the discourse within our liberal religious community. Tom Schade’s The Lively Tradition is the latest iteration of these. In previous years Chris Walton’s Philocrites or Victoria Weinstein’s Peacebang were similarly influential. This suggests a possible project for those of us who are interested in bridging the space between the academy and our wider Unitarian Universalist community: a collective blog.
I am almost out of time. My two other questions were: “What magazines, academic journals, and blogs most impact your work?” and “What is the most important issue for Unitarian Universalist scholars to address?” The responses to both were all over the place. Only three publications--the Christian Century, New Yorker, and the UU World--were named by more than ten percent of respondents. There was no clear consensus as to what issue we should be addressing, though several people did write some variant of “Theology, Theology, Theology.” Mark Morrison-Reed was kind enough to send me a personal e-mail in response and given that I value his opinion as I value few others I thought I would let him have the last word here: “exploring the multicultural history of [Unitarian Universalism] ...is important...
Why is this important? If the UUA is to become more diverse is must figure out what is getting in the way. And it must hold up the history that exist[s] but is yet untold. The various Identity groups need to understand that they have been around and have made a difference. That narrative must be told a a corrective to our misunderstanding of who were really are and might become.”
Nov 13, 2014
[Colin's note: My good friend the Rev. Ian White Maher wrote this piece in response to the Rev. Rebekah Montgomery's 2014 sermon for the UUA's Service of the Living Tradition. We have decided to post it here in the hopes of starting a much needed conversation within our shared religious tradition.]
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…”
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
I walked out of this year’s Service of the Living Tradition in order to play with the cute two-year-old sitting next to me. Like my young friend, I found myself fidgeting in my seat, growing increasingly uncomfortable with the ceremony, and finally I decided that playing with this bundle of joy was more in line with where my life is these days. Although I really love playing with children and will take just about any opportunity to do so, this was not a decision I took lightly. I believe in the ministry and, more specifically, I believe in our ministry as Unitarian Universalists. Serving as a minister in our tradition is one of the great honors of my life, and I am proud to stand in what I consider a beautiful and noble lineage.
Each year, as we welcome new colleagues into the fellowship and say goodbye to those who came before us, the sermon outlines a vision for Unitarian Universalist ministry. No single sermon can hope to capture the depth and meaning of the ministry of our movement and every preacher will always encounter criticism for what they say (or don’t say) during the service. We accept this limitation when we get up to proclaim a vision. However, this year’s sermon, mostly through omission, normalized a vision of a nation at war that is inconsistent with who we say we are as a religious movement.
As Unitarian Universalists, we repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery—the ideological justification for colonialism, feudalism and religious, cultural and racial biases—as it relates to the indigenous people of this hemisphere. But, as a nation, we are presently engaged in two (potentially three) massive wars of colonialism and feudalism that were perpetrated using religious, cultural and racial biases. As Unitarian Universalists, we made a commitment to the prevention of gun violence, but, as a nation, we are one of the greatest offenders of worldwide gun violence. As Unitarian Universalists, we condemned the racist mistreatment of people of color by the police and are trying to divest ourselves from the fossil fuel industry, but, as a nation, we continue to participate in wars of aggression to protect our access to fossil fuels and police the world while condemning whole nations of people of color to poverty and chaos through the use of military colonization. We have been working to find a space for military chaplains within our movement, an effort that I think is worthwhile because there are people in the military who desperately need us. But we cannot allow this effort to subvert our prophetic mission as peacemakers in the world.
The United States military is not a defensive force and our lack of criticism of the endless war agenda of our nation runs contrary to what our mission is as people of faith and conscience. The Service of the Living Tradition (despite a reading titled “There Must Be Religious Witness”) was silent on the impact of military aggression. And while no sermon can cover every angle, the absence of even a nod to our repeated aspirations to be peacemakers left me gutted and frightened as a minister as we seemed to willingly collude with the normalization of the use of the military to advance imperialism.
The war in Afghanistan is now the longest American war in history. The war in Iraq will pass Vietnam as our second longest this December. Washington officials have admitted that the current is strategy is not working when it comes to defeating al-Qaeda, and yet we are still there some 13 years after we first invaded. In the meantime, we have spent over 1.5 trillion dollars on these two wars alone, a number that has lost any sense of reality. Our politicians weakened the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 which explicitly forbids the use of government-made media (propaganda) upon domestic audiences in order to manipulate us into war. They have undermined our moral fiber as a nation by legally justifying torture and indefinite detention as an extension of our global military strategy. Some 2.5 million soldiers have now served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, many of them serving multiple tours, with an estimated 14-20% these men and women suffering from PTSD. And, perhaps worst of all, we just don’t seem to even notice that we’re at war any longer. Children who are now entering high school have only known our nation to be at war. This is what is normal to them.
The Unitarian Universalists I know resolutely reject this military spending, use of domestic propaganda, justification of torture, abysmal and inadequate treatment of our soldiers, and the normalizing of war. As people of faith, we know that these actions run contrary to our worldview and our understanding of the holy. But these wars are more than just a domestic nightmare; they are an extension of U.S. imperialism that has destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of Iraqis and Afghanis. Yet the Service of the Living Tradition made no mention of these people. Not one.
I knew that it was time for me to leave the Service to play with my young friend after hearing Rev. Rebekah Montgomery preach:
“Often the most remarkable thing would happen. I would stop our vehicle, push open my heavy door and step outside—take off my Kevlar helmet and brush the sweaty hair off my brow. The villagers would gather around us and kids would peek from behind older children, just watching us. After a few minutes, the one or two villagers around me would swell to 5 or 6—then 9, then 12. The thing is—out in some of these areas—Afghans had never seen a female Soldier. They’d especially never seen a female soldier driving a Humvee. The reception I received a handful of times is sort of like landing on a strange planet where you think you’re average and nothing out of the ordinary—and everyone else perceives you as a purple dinosaur with green spots and yellow feathers. Then in a hot minute, the Afghans’ worldview would completely shatter when the interpreter explained to the amassing crowd before us that I’m an officer and a chaplain, or like one interpreter insisted, ‘a female mullah’ or religious leader in Islam.”
This final line received laughter and cheers. And on one level, I can understand why. Women should be able to serve in the military. Women should drive cars. Women are brilliant faith leaders and interpreters of the Divine. But the subtext of this statement also reveals the very cultural and religious bias that was used to start the war in Afghanistan and has been used in our battle with Islam for a very long time. A hundred years ago these soldiers would have handed out Bibles to these “backwards” people. Today we just cheer along in patriotic smugness.
Rev. Montgomery received a standing ovation at the end of her sermon. People were genuinely moved by her words. But what exactly was moving us? This sermon did not tell the real story of what happens in war. It was a glorified retelling of America bringing light to the “backward” people, those who held worldviews that did not cohere with modern times. It was absolutely uncritical of our behavior, our motivations, and our responsibilities as people who believe in the sacredness of life.
The standing ovation was incredibly frightening to me. It seemed to mean that thousands of people who I consider faith partners could be swept up in a patriotic fervor that tells only about the glory and nothing about the real horror of what we are doing to people and the propaganda that we spread to diminish the worth of others and justify our own behaviors.
The estimated death toll of Iraqis and Afghanis varies widely, with the military taking the official position that it doesn’t track deaths (documents released by Wikileaks revealed this to be false). The deaths related to the war in Iraq range from 195,000 to 461,000 (civilians and combatants). Enemy combatants amount to somewhere between 50,000 to 65,000 of these deaths.
But the story of what is happening gets lost in the abstraction of these numbers. “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic,” as the saying goes.* The reality is that the American military is a brutal and terrifying force. The stories that reach us tell of the constant fear our soldiers encounter—one such story made it into the sermon, while the fear that our enemies feel remained unspoken—but these stories are told in a way that makes it seem like we meet our enemies as equals on the field of battle. This is not true. The American military is the best trained, the most skilled, the best funded, and the best educated fighting force the world has ever known. From a patriotic perspective, this sounds great. But if we want to engage from a human perspective, we must wrestle with the impact of the death and destruction that we bring with us. For every American soldier killed in conflict, somewhere between 14 and 19 enemy combatants is killed. Or, stated more graphically, for every American soldier killed in conflict, 3 to 5 families worth of enemy combatants die. But it is also estimated that coalition forces are responsible for somewhere between 12%-35% of the civilian deaths.
I understand that Rev. Montgomery and the other chaplains likely are not in a position to talk about this atrocity. Being in the military means that you agree to a certain degree of censorship. Being in the military means, at least in public spaces like the Service of the Living Tradition, that it is not appropriate to criticize the direction of your superiors and our President. You do not talk about the impact of the five years of drone strikes in Pakistan and the children who have been killed by a practice that seems to have a 2% success rate against strategically important targets. You don’t talk about it because ultimately the purpose is not to defeat al-Qaeda. It is to defeat the people.
As a nation we are engaged in reprehensible behavior, and we should be much more ashamed of what we are doing abroad than we are. Many of us have taken actions—attending marches, meeting with politicians, donating to anti-war and veterans’ programs, working with returning vets, trying to support Iraqis and Afghanis struggling with the consequences of the war, and many other important measures—but like the Confessing Church of the 1930s and 1940s Germany, I fear that we, as people of faith, will be judged for the horrors that are being committed by our nation because we have not done enough.
I am not a pacifist who believes that the worst peace is better than the best war. But in our rush to support the career decisions of our military chaplains we seem to have lost sight of the daily murder that is being carried out in our name by the U.S. military. There absolutely is a role for Unitarian Universalist chaplains in the armed forces, but it is not to normalize war, or even necessarily to promote a UU worldview among the soldiers. We have a faith obligation to minister to everyone, including those in the military, but as a faith movement we have not given our ministers the proper support and guidance to effectively serve the disenfranchised.
While it is not appropriate for the chaplains to speak out against the endless war agenda of our nation—that is our job—the chaplains absolutely can serve those Americans who have been preyed upon by recruiters and now find themselves in desperate situations, fighting people who never intended to hurt them, and often ending up with lifelong debilitating injuries, both physical and mental.
The pressure to meet enlistment numbers for our wars overseas pushes military recruiters to engage in dishonest behavior with high school students and underprivileged Americans in order to meet their quotas. The “prospecting” techniques of recruiters have been compared to the predatory grooming behaviors of abusers. Not everyone, of course, who enlists does so because they see no other option for their lives, and many do see real opportunities in a military career. But to suggest that the military does not explicitly target the poor and underprivileged in our nation is beyond naïve. It is a manipulative system that traps the American poor into conflict with the poor of other nations, leaving them with few resources and little support when they do finally manage to get out.
These people need chaplains who can stand with them as they come to grips with the moral injury that has taken place in their lives, both for what has been done to them and what they have done to others. If the ministry of our chaplains is to those who have been trapped by this system, I am in absolute support of it. If the ministry is to champion American imperialism and colonialism, I do not believe that this is consistent with the moral and ethical vision of Unitarian Universalism. Military propaganda does not serve the living tradition to which I have given my life.
There is a more beautiful world out there. I know it is possible. I can see the promise of that world in the innocent joy of the child who sat beside me. And I pray that the denomination that I call home is willing to help our chaplains become who they need to be and do the spiritual work required to reject the violence and murder that is carried out in our name.
*Often attributed to Joseph Stalin, though this is probably apocryphal.
Nov 10, 2014
Next week I am going to be part of a panel presentation at the UU Collegium on the “The Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship.” To aid in preparations for my portion of the panel I am trying to collect some unscientific survey data. There are only four questions and I would appreciate it if readers of my blog could fill it out and distribute it. I will publish the results on the survey next week. The url is https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/98ZLCLK
Oct 21, 2014
Recently Juan Conatz put a copy of my 2007 article "The Chicago Couriers Union: a lesson for IWW solidarity union organizers" up on libcom. The piece appeared in the Industrial Worker and served as the basis for my “The Chicago Couriers Union: A Case Study in Solidarity Unionism,” which was published in Working USA. You can read the Industrial Worker piece here.