Nov 19, 2013
Today was the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” I spent the better part of the day reading Eric Foner’s recent The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Foner makes the following argument about the address:
At the time of his death and for years thereafter, Lincoln was remembered primarily as the Great Emancipator. Not until the turn of the century, when the process of (white) reconciliation was far advanced, would Americans forget or suppress the centrality of slavery and emancipation to the war experience. Lincoln would then be transformed into a symbol of national unity, and the Gettysburg Address, which did not explicitly mention slavery, would, in popular memory, supplant the Emancipation Proclamation as the greatest embodiment of his ideas. (333)
The Civil War wasn't about States rights or any other similar nonsense. It was about slavery. As people take time to remember Lincoln's let's also remember that.
Nov 15, 2013
Yesterday Cambridge police arrested and assaulted Jason Freedman during the course of a legal IWW picket in Harvard Square. There was a march against police brutality today that I wasn't able to go to. So, I wrote a letter to the Mayor and Police Commissioner instead. I'm posting it here in case anyone wants to use it as a template for writing their own letter.
Dear Mayor Davis and Commissioner Haas:
I am writing to protest last night’s outrageous actions by the Cambridge Police Department. As you know, yesterday evening’s legal picket against the union busting Insomnia Cookies was broken up by Cambridge police. Video footage from the picket suggests that while the police attempted to disburse the protestors they assaulted Jason Freedman in the process of arresting him. Freedman has since been charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. This despite the fact that he was the one assaulted! Such disgraceful behavior on the part of the police cannot be tolerated. The police are supposed to protect the community not, as appears to be the case, intervene on the side of management during a labor dispute.
You have the power to right this wrong. All charges against Freedman should be dropped immediately. The police officers involved should be suspended pending investigation. Police brutality is simply unacceptable. Cambridge can do better than this.
Rev. Colin Bossen
cc: Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Harvard Crimson, Boston IWW
Nov 13, 2013
Today I gave a presentation on matter for the American Studies colloquim. It is currently focused on material culture. Below is the text of the handout I put together for class. Since some of my Facebook friends asked for it I thought I'd just go-ahead and make it publicy available. I'll try to put up a .pdf version tomorrow.
Some Thoughts on Matter
1. Matter is weird and complicated. It can behave in counter-intuitive ways. What physics gives us is different models for understanding matter. These models help us predict how it will behave in different circumstances. Remember: a model of the universe is not the same thing as the universe. Also, as evidenced by the search for dark energy and dark matter, there is still an awful lot that we don’t understand (together they make up 95% of the observable universe).
2. How physics models the behavior of matter depends on speed, scale and frame of reference. There are three overlapping models: Newtonian Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics and Relativity.
3. Two things to remember before turning to these models:
A. e = mc^2 or mass and energy are different forms of the same thing;
B. The First Law of Thermodynamics says that the total amount of energy (and therefore mass) in a closed system must be conserved;
4. Newtonian Mechanics:
A. Describes the world that we can see with the naked eye: largish objects (i.e. larger than a molecule) moving at slow speeds (i.e. significantly less than the speed of light).
B. Essentially deterministic: I can write an equation predicting where a ball I throw will land.
5. Quantum Mechanics (i.e. the Standard Model and whatever comes after it):
A. Describes the world that we can’t see with the naked eye: atomic and subatomic particles.
B. Counter-intuitive and essentially probabilistic: I can write an equation predicting the probability of a particle arriving at a particular place. (Einstein said: “God does not play dice.”)
C. Is predicated on the idea that particles have fixed values or quanta associated with them (i.e. an electron has a charge of -1).
D. At this scale matter has a dual particle wave nature (an electron behaves like both a particle and a wave form).
E. Places limits on knowledge (i.e. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: we can only know so much about the position and momentum of a particle. The more we know about one, the less we know about the other).
F. Matter itself is made up two families of particles: fundamental particles (fermions) and radiation or force carrying particles (bosons). Asif Hassan, a physicist at University of Texas at Austin, says: “no two fundamental particles (electrons, neutrinos, quarks) can be at the same place with the same properties. The other kind of particle is bosonic (commuting), so that this kind of particle (photons, W and Z particles, gluons, and the Higgs) can be at the same place with the same properties. So photons for instance can constructively interfere at the fundamental level and lots of them can be in the same quantum state at the same time - this is what is arranged to happen in a laser. There is no such thing as a neutrino laser, or an electron laser for example. So with bosons you can see the quantum behavior at an energy and size scale that we consider normal, but with fermions the quantum behavior mostly shows up at tiny scales. You have to be careful though about the idea of material things corresponding to fermions... because we usually think of those things as things we can touch, and neutrinos are fermions but they are so weakly interacting that we don't even notice them. Intuitively we associate "stuff" with things we can touch, and most of that is fermions - electrons and quarks (which make neutrons and protons.)”
G. There are lots of amazing phenomena observed at the quantum level that we don’t have time to go into: entanglement, quantum tunneling, virtual particles...
H. Satisfactorily accounts for three of the four fundamental forces: electromagnetic, and the weak and strong nuclear forces.
A. General relativity accounts for gravity and how mass and energy distort space.
B. Special relativity says:
1. There is no universal frame of reference;
2. The laws of physics are the same for all frames of reference;
3. The experience of time depends upon the frame of reference.
C. Relativity is useful for understanding things that are either very large or are moving very fast. That doesn’t mean it can’t show up in our everyday life. Asif Hassan says, “the gravitational field of the earth changes the speed of clocks, so GPS satellite clocks run at a different rate than they do here on Earth. GPS has to account for this correction to work properly. Most of us don't realize it but we are carrying around an application of general relativity in our pockets.”
Scientific American (www.scientificamerican.com)
Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and General Theory
Richard P. Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
Stephen Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes
Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos
Leon Lederman, If the Universe is the Answer: What is the Question?
Asif Hassan commented on a draft of this handout.
Nov 2, 2013
Oct 29, 2013
A couple of weeks back I wrote a post asking, “Can the UUA Divest from Fossil Fuels?” Apparently someone else has a similar idea. There’s an on-line petition circulating at the moment called “Divest the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Common Endowment Fund.” So far it only has about 700 signatures. There are roughly 150,000 adult Unitarian Universalists in the United States. If it was possible to get to 15,000 signatures before General Assembly then anyone wanting to put this issue before the Assembly would be able to claim that 10% of adult Unitarian Universalists are behind them. That, I am sure, would be very helpful in any sort of floor fight.
Oct 16, 2013
Over the last year I have been functioning as a semi-itinerant minister. While the majority of my time has been spent on my graduate studies, I have been doing fairly regular pulpit supply, preaching on average of slightly more than once a month, and officiating the occasional wedding or funeral. This experience has increased my appreciation for my professional association, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA). It has also strengthened my belief that the UUMA functions as a labor organization. It helps its members negotiate with congregations and other employers around working conditions and wages.
I find myself relying increasing on, and increasing grateful for, the UUMA’s Scale of Minimum Fees for Professional Services. This document has provided me with the leverage on several occasions over the last year that I needed to get paid more for my services than I might have otherwise been paid. It has also helped me get other ministers paid more for their services than they would have otherwise been paid.
Within the last couple of years the UUMA increased its fee scale. The going rate for leading one service is supposed to be $250. A lot of smaller congregation in New England seem to think that it is acceptable to pay ministers $200. I have decided that I am going to follow the UUMA scale. I do not accept any invitations to lead services that don’t pay at least $250. This has had an interesting impact. Twice within the last few months congregations have contacted me to ask me to preach and offered me $200. I have told them that I would only preach if they paid me according to scale. In both cases the contact person has then told me that they’d like me to preach but they need to go talk with the worship committee about the higher fee. And in both cases they have called me back a week or so later and told me that the committee has met and agreed to not only paying me the higher fee but to raise their preaching fee for other clergy.
I have found the fee scale similarly useful when negotiating with funeral homes. In one instance a funeral home needed me to do a service, the family specifically wanted me to do it, but the funeral home didn’t want to pay me all that much because they were paid through an insurance policy (which meant they got to keep whatever wasn’t spent on funeral expenses). I told them if they wanted me to do the service then I would only do it if I was paid according to the fee scale of my professional association. That ended the discussion quickly and resulted in me getting paid according to scale.
These experiences have reminded me that ministers are workers. When we remember this we can also remember that like other workers we have the power to withhold our labor and, by doing so, create better working conditions for ourselves and for our colleagues. The only reason why some congregations think it is acceptable to pay at a rate below scale is because some of my colleagues will accept that pay. If they stop accepting that pay then the congregations won’t be able to get away with substandard compensation. And what’s true of congregations is also, or especially, true of funeral homes and those who come to us to officiate weddings and other rites of passage.
My experiences have also increased my appreciation for the UUMA. While some of my colleagues complain about the dues rates I know that as a semi-itinerant minister they are worth every penny. The amount of additional compensation they have aided me in negotiating in the last year far exceeds what I pay annually in dues. And simply being grateful for the additional compensation doesn’t take into consideration all of the other things, like collegiality and continuing education, that the UUMA facilitates.
Oct 11, 2013
Last week Harvard President Drew Faust made it clear that Harvard won’t be divesting its endowment from the fossil fuel industry. Faust’s statement on divestment runs several paragraphs long but it can probably be summarized in one sentence: Harvard, and society as a whole, is too reliant on the fossil fuel industry to divest. Environmental activist and Unitarian Universalist seminarian Tim DeChristopher, who attends Harvard Divinity School, issued a rebuttal to President Faust that took her to task for remaining neutral during one of humanity’s greatest crises. DeChristopher’s statement is a reminder that President Faust’s refusal to divest doesn’t end the discussion. Environmental activists at Harvard will continue to increase the pressure on her for years to come. The anti-Apartheid divestment campaign took almost two decades to accomplish its goal. Despite the urgency of climate change, the fossil fuel divestment campaign will probably unfold over a similar timespan.
President Faust’s disappointing statement about divestment has had me thinking about divestment within Unitarian Universalism. My home congregation, First Parish in Cambridge, divested from fossil fuels last spring (we currently have a banner up reading “We divested from fossil fuels! Your turn, Harvard.”). The General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) passed an Action of Immediate Witness (AIW) this year calling congregations to “Consider Divestment from the Fossil Fuel Industry.” While the AIW was a good first step it lacks teeth. It doesn’t require the UUA to do anything with its own funds or set any guidelines for the $150,000,000 UUA Common Endowment Fund.
I think it is time for the UUA to take a bolder step. The United Church of Christ has already divested from fossil fuels and the Massachusetts Episcopal Diocese is considering divesting. Under the current working rules of the General Assembly, I believe that at the 2014 Assembly delegates could strongly encourage, but not direct, the UUA administration to divest via a responsive resolution (in response to the UUA’s Financial Advisor’s report). The UUA Board could use the responsive resolution to set policy.
It would be a small step. The UUA doesn’t control that much money but it would be an important moral gesture. It would make it harder for people like President Faust, who run organizations with multibillion dollar endowments, to dimiss the campaign for divestment. In doing so it would help move the divestment campaign a little bit farther along.
Sep 20, 2013
I am excited to announce that I will be preaching at the Theodore Parker Unitarian Universalist Church in West Roxbury, MA on December 1, 2013. Theodore Parker has long been one of my heroes and I am delighted to have the opportunity to fill the pulpit where he first made a name for himself as a preacher.
Sep 12, 2013
I will be preaching and presiding at the October 18 service of the Harvard Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Students. The service is at noon in Andover Hall. It is open to the public so if you're on campus please consider yourself invited.
Sep 10, 2013
This semester I am taking a research seminar with Professor Lisa McGirr entitled “Twentieth-Century Politics and Social Movements.” I am currently trying pick a research topic for the seminar. The ideal topic would be something that relates to the labor movement, indigenous movements and/or religion, has not been written about widely and has archival material that I can access either on-line, through Harvard’s Interlibrary Loan or within a two hour drive of Boston. There are a few different topics I am considering at the moment. These include indigenous membership in the Industrial Workers of the World in the 1910s through the 1950s, the religious dimensions of the sanctuary movement for refugees from Central American of the 1980s and the turn towards Latin American liberation theologian by American Marxists in the 1980s (specifically looking at the relationship between Vincent Harding, Grace Lee Boggs and Staughton Lynd). Since I labor under the delusion that my scholarship may in some way be relevant to people I work with in liberal religious circles and on the labor and radical Left I thought it might be interesting see what other ideas people have and/or if any of these ideas resonate with anyone. There’s a decent chance that I will eventually publish a version of the paper or something relating to it.