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Feb 9, 2016

Criticizing Harvard (almost) a Hundred Years Ago

Doing some archival research today in A. Philiph Randolph and Chandler Owen's socialist paper The Messenger I came across this gem which I couldn't resist sharing:

On the application blanks of Harvard University this year are the these questions: (1) What is the Race and Color of applicant? (2) What is his religious preference? (3) What change, if any, has been made since birth, in his own name, or that of his father’s?

It might easily be a Ku Klux questionnaire. The question about race and color being designed to excluded Negroes: the question of religious preference designed to exclude Catholics; and the question of change of name being calculated to find out Jews who have taken on Gentile nomenclature. Has the Imperial Wizard captured fair Harvard? Who knows?

from “Fair Harvard,” The Messenger, November 1922, 518


Feb 4, 2016

Preaching in Hopedale

I've add another preaching date in Hopedale, MA. I'll be at the Hopedale Unitarian Parish this coming Sunday (February 7, 2016). 

CommentsCategories Ministry News

Jan 22, 2016

Occupy Until I Come

My review of Matthew Avery Sutton's American Apocalypse has just been published on H-Net. Read it here.

CommentsCategories News Tags Publications Book Reviews

Jan 13, 2016

Books Read in 2015

I realize it is a bit late, but I thought I would go ahead and publish my list of books read in 2015. As in the past, this is the list of all of the books I read to completion, page-by-page. It doesn’t include another 100 or so books that I spent some period of time looking at for scholarly purposes.

In 2015, thanks to the prompting of Charles Petersen, I read Elena Ferrante’s fantastic Neapolitan novels. They are some of the best works of fiction I’ve ever read and certainly superior to anything else I read for pleasure last year. The novels both have a cosmopolitan universality and particularity to them that seems capable of speaking to a variety of experiences. Robert Bolano’s “The Savage Detectives” was also great and everyone should read, or should have read, Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” (which I was lucky enough to teach this year) and Junot Diaz. It probably is unnecessary to write this but I read Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s work for my dissertation, it was awful, and it made me more sympathetic to conservative and Augustian descriptions of the inherent wickedness of human nature. Dixon was a racist f**k, his literature did enormous harm, and you should only read him if you must.

In the realm of non-fiction I want to lift up DuBois’s “The Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880.” It is the single most important work of American history. I have read it twice now and will probably read it again this spring as I prepare a lecture on African American memories of Reconstruction. If you haven’t read it you need to. Now. Before you read anything else. It will help you understand the deep structures of American white supremacy and how and why capital is always racialized. As an equation Du Bois argues, building off Marx, that: the exploitation of black and brown bodies + the exploitation of the planet = white wealth.

The only really terrible things I read this past year were works by Dixon or other white supremacists. Some of my son’s books were questionable but they didn’t rise to the level of the truly awful.

The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai
Spy Academy: Black Tie Spy, George Glass
The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand
Saga, Vol. 4, Brian Vaughan
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel, Jeff Kinney
The Leopard’s Spots, Thomas Dixon, Jr.
Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination, Robert Abzug
Roman Catholicism and Political Form, Carl Schmitt
Political Theology, Carl Schmitt
Fellowship of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien
Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, Kadir Nelson
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Simon Critchley
The Concept of the Political, expanded edition, Carl Schmitt
Amulet: Prince of the Elves, Book Five, Kazu Kibuishi
How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, Joy Harjo
A Bear Called Paddington, Michael Bond
March: Book One, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
The Lesson of Carl Schmitt: Four Chapters on the Distinction between Political Theology and Political Philosophy, Heinrich Meier
Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of Any Political Theology, Carl Schmitt
Asterix the Gaul, René Goscinny
Meaning in History, Karl Löwith
Labor Struggles in the Deep South & Other Writings, Covington Hall
Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, William McLoughlin, Jr.
Asterix and the Golden Sickle, René Goscinny
Asterix and the Normans, René Goscinny
Catullus, The Complete Poems, trans. Guy Lee
The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Occidental Eschatology, Jacob Taubes
To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections, Jacob Taubes
Usagi Yojimbo 27: A Town Called Hell, Stan Sakai
Usagi Yojimbo 28: Red Scorpion, Stan Sakai
Usagi Yojimbo Saga Volume 1, Stan Sakai
The Enemy: An Intellectual Portrait of Carl Schmitt, Gopal Balakrishnan
Bone: Tall Tales, Tom Sniegoski and Jeff Smith
Bone: The Complete Cartoon Epic in One Volume, Jeff Smith
The Clansman, Thomas Dixon, Jr.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke
Hegel and Modern Society, Charles Taylor
Bone: Rose, Prequel, Jeff Smith
The Traitor, Thomas Dixon, Jr.
The Klan Unmasked, William Simmons
The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Susanna Clarke
The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano
Bridget Jones: Mad about the Boy, Helen Fielding
By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolano
Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska, trans. Joanna Trzeciak
This is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Collection Volume 1, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird
Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880, W. E. B. Du Bois
Usagi Yojimbo Book 6: Circles, Stan Saki
Someday We’ll Be Ready, and We’ll Be Enough, Jeremy Louzao
Drown, Junot Diaz
Cane, Jean Toomer
American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, Matthew Avery Sutton
Papers Read at the Meeting of Grand Dragons, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
Ku Klux Klan, Church and Labor, Pasquale Russo
Bill Haywood’s Book, Bill Haywood
Saga, Volume 5, Brian Vaughan
Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor: Book One, Jon Scieszka
The Phenomenology of the Spirit, G. W. F. Hegel (trans. A. V. Miller)
We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, Melvyn Dubovsky
The Shooting Star, Herge
Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World, Catherine Keller
Home to Harlem, Claude McKay
Banjo, Claude McKay
All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks
Negro with A Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey, Colin Grant
The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, Audre Lorde
Modern Social Imaginaries, Charles Taylor
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Goosebumps: The Haunted Car, R. L. Stine
Race and Reunion, David Blight
The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante

CommentsTags Literature Book List Du Bois

Jan 5, 2016

Preaching in Palmer, MA

I'm please to announce that I'll be preaching at St. Paul's Unitarian Universalist Church in Palmer, MA on May 22, 2016. 

CommentsCategories Ministry News

Dec 18, 2015

Two New Preaching Dates

I am pleased to announce two new preaching dates. On January 30, 2016 I will be at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading and on April 3, 2016 I will be at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford. More dates will be announced soon, including at least one in the New York metro area and another in Arlington, VA.

CommentsCategories Ministry News

Nov 17, 2015

After This Was is Over

During my research today I came across a remarkable quote from "Big" Bill Haywood about World War I that seems apropos:

And it is what this war means to society after this war is over. Somewhere in the files here is jotted down on a piece of paper what is meant by the aftermath of the war. Nothing for a hundred years but war, war, war. Nothing to follow but war cripples, war widows, war orphans, war stories, war pictures and war everything. 

CommentsCategories IWW Research Notes Tags Anti-war

Oct 20, 2015

Unitarian Universalist Sermon Awards

Other the last couple of years I have fallen into the habit of submitting some of my sermons to award competitions. I have had pretty good luck. I have won the Dana McLean Greeley, Skinner, and Universalist Heritage awards. Unfortunately, both the UUA and the UUMA’s list of awards appear to be incomplete. So, both for my own reference and the benefit of others I thought I would put one together. Here’s what I’ve managed to gather:

Albert Schweitzer Sermon Award

Established by: UUs for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (now Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry). An annual competition for the sermon that best exemplifies Schweitzer's principle of "reverence for life." Deadline: April 1 Prize: Unknown [Note: UUAM does not list the contest on their web site so it unclear whether this contest is still held.] 

Dale Arnink Preaching Award
The sermon must have been delivered before a Unitarian Universalist congregation
between March 1, 2015 and January 31, 2016. The sermon should explore and promote understanding and application of Humanist teachings in Unitarian Universalism. All Unitarian Universalist professional religious leaders, as well as those studying for professional leadership, are eligible to be considered for this award. Deadline: April 16, 2016 Prize: $300

Dana McLean Greeley Annual Address
Established by: Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office. An annual competition for the outstanding sermon or address on developing a peaceful and just world. Deadline: Feb 1 Prize: $500 This year’s theme is International Criminal Justice: From Punitive to Restorative. 

UUs for Justice in the Middle East Sermon Contest Deadline: April 30 Prize: $500 [Note: Last award was given in 2013; in 2014 they didn’t select a winner; it appears to be defunct as of 2015] 

Interweave Continental
Established by: Interweave Continental. Each year, Interweave Continental recognizes the best sermon addressing LGBTQ issues that was preached to a Unitarian Universalist congregation or preached in a seminary setting during the previous year (April 1 through March 31). Deadline: April 30 Prize: $250 

Jerry Davidoff Sermon Award
Established by: The Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness (UUJA) Unitarian Universalism and Judaism both have deep traditions of justice seeking as spiritual practice. As congregations throughout our association engage in advocacy and witness around immigration reform and other pressing issues of the day, what contributions might the Jewish voice in our living tradition make to our shared efforts? What resources and lessons can the Jewish experience bring to our quest for beloved community?

The award is named in honor of the late Jerry Davidoff, an early member of this group, who was instrumental in helping lift up the the often overlooked Jewish presence in our religious movement. UUJA offers resources to those interested in Jewish issues, celebrations and heritage, either personally or on behalf of congregations. Deadline: April 1 Prize: $500 [Note: The last year that the UUJA lists a winner for this award is 2012 so it is unclear if it is still given.]

Promise the Children
Established by: Promise the Children announces a new and unique sermon-story contest. Three prizes will be awarded this year at General Assembly. One for a sermon given by an adult; the second for a sermon or portion of a sermon given by a youth or young adult under age 21; and the third for a children’s story or children’s sermon given during a Sunday service or children’s worship. Deadline: May 20 Prize: Unknown [Note the organization’s web site has no information about the award]

Social Witness Sermon Award
Established by: Commission on Social Witness and the UUMA. The current Congregational Study/Action Issues are "Reproductive Justice: Expanding Our Social Justice Calling" and “Escalating Inequality.” Either topic is eligible. Deadline: March 1 Prize: $500 

Stewardship Sermon Award
Established by: UUA Annual Program Fund, the UUMA & LREDA. An annual competition for the sermon judged most effective in exploring and promoting financial support of our Unitarian Universalist faith. Deadline: Feb 15 Prize: $500 

The Skinner Sermon Award
An annual competition for the sermon best expressing Unitarian Universalism's social principles. Deadline: March 1 Prize: $500 

Universalist Heritage Sermon Award
Established by: Universalist Heritage Society. To encourage deeper study of Universalist history and spirituality and the sharing of the Good News of this faith with ever wider audiences, we joyfully announce this award program. Deadline: April 1 Prize: $500 

CommentsCategories Ministry Tags Sermon Contests

Oct 18, 2015

Democracy as a Religious Practice

as preached at Harvard Divinity School, October 16, 2015

The sermon I am going to share with you this afternoon is a result of one of those unpleasantries with which we preachers find ourselves saddled. I speak of the assigned sermon topic. We Unitarian Universalists like to celebrate our tradition of the free pulpit. And we should, it is a worthy tradition. But one of the things that your professors might not tell you is that you do not always get to pick your sermon topic. If you serve as a parish minister you will be often burdened with a topic of someone else’s choosing. You’re stuck with all of the holidays. Christmas, Easter, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Flower Communion, Mother’s Day, come each and every year. But you also have to tend to the particular business of your congregation. Every minister I know dreads the annual pledge Sunday sermon. And what about Membership Sunday? You have to learn how to respond promptly to the events of the hour. Congregations across the United States will expect their ministers to preach about the results of the Presidential election next November.

This afternoon I find myself facing one of the assigned sermon topics that each of you who aspire to the parish ministry will face. I have to preach a sermon on one of the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Our congregation in Fall River, Massachusetts invited me to take part in a series they are doing on the principles. They assigned me the fifth principle, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” And so, today I want us to consider democracy as a religious practice.

Democracy is a religious practice. At least, it is for us Unitarian Universalists. James Luther Adams, that great Unitarian Universalist social ethicist, liked to share a story that illustrates the way we practice democracy religiously.

In the late 1940s Adams was a Board member at the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. The congregation was in the midst of an effort to racially integrate. Unlike many pre-1960s churches, including some Universalist churches in the South, First Unitarian did not have any formal bar to people of color joining the congregation. It also did not have any people of color as its members.

Under the leadership of the congregation’s senior minister a resolution was finally passed at a congregational meeting. It read we "take it upon ourselves to invite our friends of other races and colors who are interested in Unitarianism to join our church and to participate in all our activities." Hardly, revolutionary sounding stuff. It was divisive and possibly even radical in 1940s Chicago.

Adams relates that in the lead up to the congregational vote there was a contentious Board meeting that lasted into the wee hours. One openly racist member of the Board complained that the minister was “preaching too many sermons on race relations.” Adams writes, “So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about... [Jews] and blacks?’

‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’

Then the barrage opened, ‘Will you tell us what is the purpose of a church anyway?’

‘I’m no theologian. I don’t know.’

‘But you have ideas, you are... a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of the church. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.’ The questioning continued, and items on the agenda for the evening were ignored.

At about one o’clock in the morning our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. And our friend gave a remarkable statement regarding the nature of our fellowship. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is... Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’

Someone... suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘mazing grace... how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’”

Amazing grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Democracy is a religious practice. Let me suggest that in Adams story we find the basic elements of religious practice. In order for something to qualify as a religious practice it has to have an element of practice. It needs to be something that you do. Like most things we do in life, and especially in community, democracy is a learned behavior. You have to learn how to do it. Think about the other, perhaps more blatantly familiar, kinds of religious practice: prayer, meditation, reading the scripture, or sacred dance. Each of these is learned behavior. You have to learn how to pray. You might spend years trying to master meditation--or coming to understand that meditation isn’t something that you master. The same is true with democracy. In order to practice it, you have to learn it. To meditate you need to learn how to breath, how to sit, how to unfocus your mind. To practice democracy you need to learn rules of order, how to run a meeting, how to bring silenced voices into the conversation, when to speak and when to keep still.

Like other religious practices, democracy contains within it the possibility of personal and social transformation. Our racist friend ended up realizing after hours of unpleasant debate—probably around a ridiculous massive solid oak conference table sipping cold coffee in a room that did not have enough light and where the temperature was either too hot or too cold. Anyway, our racist friend recognized that “the purpose [of the church] is to get hold of people like me and change them.” And he realized “I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.” And First Chicago became, as you may know, one of the most racially diverse Unitarian congregations in the country and a leader in the Northern civil rights movement.

Democracy is a religious practice. Can anyone here testify to the transformative power of democracy in your own lives? Raise your hand if you have ever had an experience like our friend in Adams story, where you went to a meeting and felt afterwards, “I was blind but now I see.”

Well, whether you raised your hand or not let me testify something to you. If you enter the parish ministry or devote yourself to some kind of community ministry you will experience the transformative power of democracy. You will go to a meeting—an emotionally wrought possibly indeterminably long meeting where the coffee goes cold—you will go to a meeting and you will leave that meeting a different sort of person. But more than that, the community that you serve will be different afterwards. You will practice democracy and undergo personal transformation. You will practice democracy and help usher in social transformation.

Such a transformative experience might take place in an exciting setting over what can be cast as an important issue. You may immediately feel, “I was blind but now I see.” The transformation also might take place in a more quotidian environment. Adams’s story is set at church Board meeting. The testimonial I want to offer you is from an equally banal setting, a congregational meeting. And the transformation that I can attest to did not occur in instant. It was spread out over years.

The congregation I served in Cleveland is small and urban. Like most Unitarian Universalist communities, my former congregation voted on approving its annual budget at a congregational meeting. By the time I got to Cleveland, the congregational meeting had devolved into an unpleasant ritual. A motion would be made to pass the budget and then an argument would begin. It was always the same. One small group of longtime members would voraciously complain that the congregation did not have enough money to pay its minister. Another group of, much larger, members would yell back that the congregation had over a million dollars in liquid assets. It could afford to support a full-time minister. The vote always went the same way. More than 90% of the congregation voted to approve the budget. But the energy of the community was drained. It was difficult for us to focus our energy on anything else.

This changed a couple of years into my ministry when the congregation got a new Board chair. She was brilliant. She was experienced in leading non-profits. And she cared about the process of decision making. Between the two of us we developed a plan transform the congregational meeting. It had a free wheeling affair. People got to speak until everyone was exhausted. We got serious about parliamentary procedure. We convinced the Board to adopt a set of rules of order that required discussion to alternate between pro and con positions. Each person was allowed to speak on an agenda item one time, instead of however many times they felt like. We set up pro and con microphones. We asked people to line-up behind the microphones if they wanted to speak on an issue.

This changed the congregational meeting. It meant that the same few people were not allowed to speak endlessly in opposition, making the same points over and over again. They got their say and then we moved on. Meanwhile, I made it a point to schedule pastoral visits with those opposed to the budget during the winter holidays and in the months leading up to the meeting. I got to know them and their concerns. Soon, the congregational meeting became a space where work could be done on things beyond adopting the budget. The congregation was able to shift its focus. Yes, there was still bickering about money. But it was not exhausting. We built a lovely community garden that served local public housing residents. We hosted refugee families from Bhutan. We were a founding member of a large interfaith and interracial network of congregations working on urban and racial justice issues.

I should come clean to you. I choose a boring story to share with you for my own testimonial. Congregational budgets? Rules of order? Parliamentarians? Did you have a good nap? Did my story turn you into a somnambulistic zombie? The truth is democracy, real democracy, is kind of boring. It is usually ploddingly slow. First Unitarian in Chicago passed its resolution in the 1947. It did not actually integrate until the mid-1950s. Democracy does not offer the kind of immediate satisfaction that many crave in a consumer culture. But that is true of other religious practices. It takes time to follow a process that gives everyone equal voice. But trying to meditate your way to enlightenment or connect to ultimate being through prayer are not quick paths.

I will further admit that I picked boring or difficult readings to highlight this. A chunk of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and a passage from Fannie Lou Hamer’s moving speech “We’re On Our Way” do not usually form a part of worship fare. They are probably better suited for a graduate seminar. I imagine that you were hoping for more poetic texts, maybe a little Rumi: “Until the juice ferments a while in the cask, / it isn't wine. If you wish your heart to be bright, / you must do a little work.” Or Audre Lorde: “Quick / children kiss us / we are growing / through dream.”

Instead you got a splash of insight into the relation between a community’s perception of the divine and its polity. Tocqueville, “There is virtually no human action, no matter how particular we assume it be, that does not originate in some very general human conception of God.” Instead you got the entangling words of a modern prophet. Hamer, “we are living in a captivated society today.” Hamer reminds us that like other religious practices democracy contains both the possibility of transformation and the possibility of stagnation, even oppression. Prayer, meditation, and scripture reading cannot all be cast as universal goods. People kill each other over their differing interpretations of scripture. Meditation and prayer can both lead to self-absorption. Democracy can go awry.

In my former congregation someone once tried to get me dismissed because we did not have congregational vote to change the color of a curtain. When practiced wrong, when focused on issues that are marginal, democracy can be immobilizing. Part of the religious practice of democracy is learning to distinguish between the issues that are important to the community and the issues that are not important.

Another part of the religious practice of democracy is finding a definition for the term. It is a term that means different things to different people. As a religious practice, democracy is a process for making decisions about matters important to communal life. In a democratic process all members of the community have equal voice and either representation or a vote.

With this definition in mind, we can remember that in the United States democracy has often gone awry over matters far less trivial than the color of curtains. It has not just immobilized communities. It has destroyed lives. In this country democracy, even democracy as a religious practice, has been far too often linked to white supremacy. The clause “all members of the community” has for much of American history meant that only white males are understood to be members of the community. And this limited notion of democracy has been used to justify slavery and genocide. I picked a reading from Hamer because she reminds us that there have been mighty struggles to change this dynamic. And that religious communities have a had a complicated role in those struggles.

Take Hamer herself. She was one of the great figures of the sixties civil rights movement. She spoke truth to power. She scared President Lyndon Johnson. He once called a press conference explicitly to take the cameras away from a speech she was giving.

Hamer, you may remember, came from a family of sharecroppers in Mississippi. She encountered the civil rights movement when she was middle-aged, after years of regular involvement in her church. In fact, the only education she received after the age of twelve took place in Bible Study. In church she learned to interpret the Bible for herself and lead hymns.

Hamer’s story reminds us that religious communities themselves provide important resources for the practice of democracy. She was critical of the church and its male leaders. Yet she took hymns and scripture, she learned in church and turned them into a powerful resource for inspiring people. She took the religious resources of the church and used them in a movement to recast society, used them to cast a vision of a society that included all members in its decision-making. She sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” during protests and in jail to teach that democracy only truly exists when every human is valued, to proclaim that black lives matter.

Democracy is a religious practice. Hamer helps us recall that as a religious practice it is about manifesting the spirit of a community. She was effective because her songs and words made that spirit palpable.

Those of you are aspiring clergy must learn to make the spirit palpable in the communities you serve. So, my charge to you, my beautiful, vibrant, hopeful, powerful, future colleagues, is to take the religious practice of democracy seriously. Recognize that is a practice, a skill, in which you must engage in repeatedly, over and over, if you are ever to master it. Understand that your congregation will look to you help teach them the practice of democracy. Recall that democracy carries with it risks, that it can go deeply awry, when it is misdirected or, worse, held as province of the few. But most of all, remember that like all religious disciplines, it contains within it the possibility of transformation. So, go forth and study your congregational polity. Learn how to run a meeting. Memorize the important bits of Roberts Rules of Order. And prepare for the possibility that one night, during a long meeting, after the coffee has gone cold, you may find yourself singing, “I once was blind but now I see.”

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags democracy religious practice Fannie Lou Hamer James Luther Adams Alexis De Tocqueville congregational polity

Oct 15, 2015

Preaching at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lynn

I've justed accepted an invitation to lead worship on November 15 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lynn