Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Religious Lefties, the Culture War, and the Supreme Court (Part 1)

I have been trying, desperately, to stay focused on my Seminary studies over the last 2 days since Justice Antonin Scalia died.  But the political junkie in me, as well as someone who spent time in the political trenches of the American Culture War, has seen an opening to advance in the theater of the Supreme Court in this conflict between reason and hate, as well as grassroots action on different legislative maneuvers that might reframe some traditional polarized issues in the United States.


When I speak of the Culture War, I often hear opposition from many Unitarian Universalist ministers, as well as friends in social action who believe that language must be all-inclusive and free from barrier in order for radical inclusivity and unconditional love to spread.  I contend that the constitutional crisis we face with the Senate leadership's refusal to hold hearings on President Obama's pending Supreme Court nominee is part of a larger matter of democratic process.  By using this time of crisis to highlight our ideological beliefs of universal salvation, as well as the inherent worth and dignity of every person, through political and grassroots action, we can not only advance our ideals, but we can frame the battle lines on important legislative and political issues to come.

Example #1: Immigration

After Justice Scalia's death, what was expected to be a major defeat for Rationalists, and the Obama Administration, in providing a legal path for residency for undocumented workers will now result a tie in the court's ruling, meaning that the constitutional question of whether President Obama can take unilateral action without Congress will go unresolved.

This is the perfect moment to those on the Religious Left to contact their elected representatives on the state and Federal level and voice support for the rights of those who come to the U.S. to build a better life for themselves and their families.  This simple act is often ignored by Rationalists, because given the toxic political climate -- that is partly due to many decisions of the Conservative Activist Supreme Court -- that individuals cannot influence their representatives in government.

That is false.  Legislators, particularly on the state level, listen to their constituents, and really listen when organized groups set up events in their districts.

UU Legislative Ministries, as well as people of conscience everywhere, should be using this moment to seize the initiative,take the time to contact the people who represent them, and remind legislators that plenty of American voters think those who come to the U.S. seeking a better life should be a recognized as people with inherent worth.

Example #2: Unions

The Purchased Lobbyists and Corrupted Legislators in State Capitols across the country have annihilated the capacity of hard working people across the country to earn a living wage, thanks Right-to-Work-for-Nothing laws.  26 states -- including, tragically, my home state of Michigan, hub of the creation of the Middle Class 80 years ago -- have passed this equivalent of economic servitiude.  The Supreme Court was expected later this year to gut the ability of public unions to ensure a livable wage for those who go into public service.  Scalia's death means that public unions are saved from oblivion, at least for now.

But playing defense constantly means eventual defeat.  It's time to open up new fronts in the Battle for union organizing and a fair playing field for workers across the U.S.

  • It's time to push for a repeal of the Federal Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, which allows states to destroy unions and working-class families
  • Protests should be organized outside of city halls and state capitols across the country, with workers whose wages have been lowered and their jobs put in jeopardy at the forefront.  Constituents should demand meetings with state legislators to hear what they will do.  Republican lawmakers will suddenly be on defense, now that they cannot rely on the Supreme Court to legislate from the bench.
  • New laws should be proposed in Statehouses to mandate higher minimum wages; to expand Medicaid; to establish a wage floor and guaranteed minimum income to prevent homelessness.

Now is the time to strike!  Now is the time for people of conscience to think about how to take advantage of the new political reality in Washington, because for the first time in decades, positive legislative action can be demanded without fear the destructive Judicial activists will tear down the progress made!  

If everyone who believes in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being were to speak up to those in power now -- right now -- we could see a revolution within the system that so many think is broken beyond repair.

I think I've found my theme for this new blog, at least for a while.  Stay tuned as I continue to hone my message.  This may help me determine what type of ministry I will pursue.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Antonin Scalia and Unconditional Love

Antonin Scalia is dead.  I cannot pretend that his sudden retirement from the Supreme Court doesn’t fill with me with relief and, dare I say it, joy.  At the same time, I feel sad that he has died, for he forced me to learn what it means to love everyone unconditionally.

I’m gay.  I’m an activist.  I'm a humanist and a Unitarian Universalist, who firmly believes in both the sanctity of life and the need to be faithful to the harsh realities of existence, as well as the tough choices people make in their lives.  Justice Scalia held beliefs far from mine.  What made him compelling as a public figure was what made him disagreeable as a jurist.  At his core in public life, he was bombastic, opinionated, brilliant, with provocative thoughts and a desire to make the world better in the image he carried in his soul.

Just like me.

I remember sitting in the Student Union of Wayne State University on June 27, 2003 -- the last day of my last undergraduate class -- reading an analysis in the New York Times of the Supreme Court decision in the landmark case Lawrence v. Texas, which made same-sex sexual activity legal in every state and territory in the U.S.  That case and ruling forever and finally ended the debate of whether people should be punished for living as God made them.   I remember that day and how I reacted to this news, as it started me on a 2-year path toward coming out of the closet.  

The highest court of the United States affirmed that I was an equal citizen!

Then I read Justice Scalia's dissent.  My God, were his words bitter and full of disdain.  He tried so desperately to justify a credible legal defense of state-sanctioned hate.  Through his writing, I saw a wounded and angry man who believed that accepting gay people as part of "normal" society would harm him personally.  I was ebullient, as the highest court in the U.S. had finally accepted my sexuality as something not monstrous or abhorrent to nature. Yet, I was a politically-active person and knew that Scalia -- a clever man in good health -- was not done in his fight against equality for people in the LGBT community, nor with other oppressed groups seeking changes to laws that kept the Interests in power.

Those who know me well will tell you that I hold a passion about politics that borders on anger. Social media is often the step I use to stand atop the virtual soap box and rant about what’s going on in the world.  While in Washington, D.C. to celebrate Valentine’s Day with my husband, I read the news of Scalia’s death and I cheered.  God help me, I cheered -- loudly, proudly, and to the annoyance of my husband and friends who spent the evening with us.  The activist in me felt primal victory.  In the great Culture War, the “side” of progress and social justice -- my “side” --  had just won a battle.  I immediately calculated the political math in my head, and knew that despite Republican opposition in the Senate, President Obama would eventually nominate a replacement for Scalia, and the court would finally return to adjudicating cases based on the constitution instead of a warped view of conservatism activism.

I think of the scared boy I was in that Student Union 13 years ago, and how Scalia and the conservative Supreme Court majority had torn apart so much I felt was critical to democracy and to the law.  Scalia helped hand the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000 (despite Bush losing the popular and electoral votes). In 2010, he ensured that corporations could enjoy the same legal rights as American citizens, but without the commensurate responsibilities. Just two years ago, he ruled with the majority that businesses could discriminate against people based on religious beliefs.  The list of petty and racist comments during oral arguments, hostile dissenting opinions, and damaging majority opinions that Scalia wrote is lengthy.  In sum, he aided in acts that drastically damaged the very social fabric of the United States and his legal legacy will be remembered with scorn by the socially and economically oppressed. His name will be synonymous with endangering the rights of women to regulate their own bodies, limiting the ability of employees to fight back against workplace and gender discrimination, and with helping political parties that sought to rig elections in their favor when their ideas failed to persuade the public.

I will not miss him on the Supreme Court.  As an advocate for social reform and a firm opponent to his hard-line conservative ideology, I bid a laughter-filled and hearty "Buh Bye!" to Justice Scalia.

And yet...


I remember an early spring day in 2007, when I was invited by a friend to hear Justice Scalia speak at the University of Toledo in Ohio.  I vividly recall how he brilliantly captured the audience's attention, regaling all with extroverted speaking style and his blunt defense of his constitutional theory of “Original Intent”.  I remember hearing this man while he spoke 20 feet from me.  This representative of what I saw as the most dangerous form of bigoted power, whom I had grown to loathe because of his legal views, was not only charming, but very human.  I walked into that auditorium wanting to leave after the event hating him, but I realized midway through that event that I was nodding my head while he spoke, awed at his brilliance and sincerity.

He speak fondly of his love of opera; of his close friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberal icon on the Court, and how their families celebrated New Year’s Eve together every year.  He was both funny and sharp in his remarks, and he answered every single question that was asked from the crowd.  Admittedly, it was not uncommon for him to respond with "That's a stupid question" or "I don't talk about cases", but that actually endeared me to Scalia the person.  I shook his hand after the speech.  He looked me in the eye, smiled, said "Nice to meet you!", as he did for everyone he met that day.

With an odd sense of clarity, I now realize how similar Scalia (the person) was to some of the patients to whom I have provided pastoral care in my current role of hospital chaplain.  If Scalia the man came to me and sought pastoral care, would I have ministered to him?  Could I have?  I have certainly encountered patients who had no problem articulating political and religious perspectives that are far different than mine during visits.

I hope I would ask about his family.  I would talk about faith and belief, and discover what I could do best to help him find peace in his time of need and transiiton.  I imagine him joking caustically about himself, mentioning friends and his storied career, providing loving stories about his children and grandchildren.  

I will always revile his professional work.  I closely hew to the principles of radical inclusivity and unconditional love that are central tenants of UU ministry and philosophy, but I hold righteous anger toward his legal legacy. I cannot ignore the negative changes that his binding legal opinions have had, and will have, for years to come.

The Blogger in front of the Supreme Court Building - 2/14/16
But I am truly sorry that he is dead.  I am not sad that he can no longer impose his activist style of conservative jurisprudence on this nation, but the role of a minister is to love unconditionally and without bias.  I imagine his wife, his nine children, and twenty-four grandchildren as they mourn their patriarch.  I imagine them preparing for a funeral.  I imagine them realizing that their husband, their father, their grandfather, will no longer be there to make them laugh or to provide comfort during hardship.

Being awake and alive and sincere means recognizing complexity and honoring it.  Spiritual healing is rooted in recognizing the differences between one's feelings and the universal need for harmony between living beings.  The boy I was who was scared, and scarred, by the bigotry Justice Scalia carried into the books of law has grown into a man who understands the beauty of contradictions.

May Justice Scalia, and Scalia the person, find peace.  May those of us still living find value in the spoken and written words of this brilliant man, even if they inspire us to stand taller and more resolute in promoting the idea of a society far different from his.

And may President Obama nominate a replacement for Scalia worthy of the nation's Supreme Court. A new justice who will fairly and impartially judge the constitutionality of laws.  Preferably, someone who can see that, although the arc of history is long, it will always bend towards justice.



Thursday, February 11, 2016

Orthodoxy and Progress: The Protestant Reformation, the 2016 Election, and Maybe We're Not So Bad Off Today


#FeeltheReformation might have been his hashtag



For my upcoming class on Christian History in my final semester of Seminary, I’m studying Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, and how the Catholic Church’s loss of power and absolute influence changed the balance of political power between German states and among the larger ruling classes of Europe.  Luther became more a symbol of a desire on the part of Christians in Europe for less strict rules for their faith practice rather than a singular deified carrier of a Holy message of reform, and his flaws as a human being and political figure would prevent deeper reforms.
Throughout days of working as a Chaplain Intern at Johns Hopkins Hospital, I provide pastoral presence and care to those whose religious lives reflect the schism in Christianity cracked wide by Luther and many other reformers of the faith.   I applied ashes to the foreheads of believers in many Christian traditions on the recent Ash Wednesday at Hopkins, while many hospital employees and staff declined.  In many Christian denominations, no meaning is held for the application of ashes.   I wonder what Martin Luther would say about the varied traditions and rituals among those whom he saw as worthy of worshipping a unified faith tradition.
Then there’s our current politics.  The battle within the Democratic Party for control of the party machinery and the message of hope and a brighter tomorrow that comes with it.  That seeming perfect symmetry in this contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.  In many ways, Hillary reminds voters of the established orthodoxy of mainstream progressive thinking in the U.S., with incremental progress and hewing to traditional means of changing government functions and allocation of resources for the betterment of the common good.  Bernie Sanders appeals to a similar pent-up desire for deep change into which Martin Luther tapped with his 95 Theses
With the rise of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and other demagogues in the Republican party, with a nascent rebellion against acceptance of further social progress, many in the corporate and polarized media are convincing people that the “sides” are “further apart than ever”, and that what we need is a “moderate” like former New York mayor and billionaire media mogul Michael Bloomberg, to “unite” the country.   The organized left, which I personally hold as the harbinger of true change and progress, the side most willing to embrace and welcome more and more marginalized groups into the mainstream of society as a mechanism for social justice, has developed a clear fault line this political season.  As I stumble into the work of social change and as one who tries to keep my own eyes open to the reality of injustice of the world, I wonder how much of the deep struggle in the wide Christian faith parallels the current political climate in U.S. and elsewhere.  Maybe our society is not more divided than ever.  Maybe we're just playing the parts people play in changing times.  There have to be reactionaries to progress; otherwise, the stories that lead to progress could not hold the potency that spawns religions.
Which holds more inherent capacity to change the world for the better, the Bernie camp or the Hillary camp?  As the organized Left incrementally begins to resolve that question over the next few months in the American opiate of political theater, I wonder for the first time in 20 years of involvement in political campaigns if our politics aren’t just echoes of the same ideological schisms that drew Martin Luther, and Jan Hus and Desiderius Erasmus and so many other reformers in Christian thought, to risk their lives and acceptance in the societies they lived.  As a humanist and political junkie, politics has been part of my religious life for so long that I cannot remember a time prior.  With the increasing percentage of Americans who feel comfortable admitting their allegiance to no faith (the patronizing term “Nones”), I see the possibility of greater synergy between American political and religious discourse.
Maybe that’s the reason this week marked the first time a Jewish man won a major political party Primary election in American history.   Can it be that as we’re slowly becoming increasingly secular and rational in our public discourse that we’re also similarly embracing Jesus’ ideals of breaking the grip of banks’ power in society, of ensuring our fellow citizens have their basic needs met?
The Perfect Fusion Ticket for Rationalists in 2016?
Conversely, should we be disappointed if the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, succeeds in earning the party nomination?  Do those of the Catholic faith, the establishment Christian tradition in the 1500s when Martin Luther sought radical change, feel as though they missed out on the revolution?  I see value in establishment faiths, be they religious or political.  I seek a world where orthdoxy is appreciated if not allowed to forever control the flow of the discourse.
I see potential for a synergistic dialogue about faith and politics in the 2016 campaign.  I feel hope for the potential for the country, and global society, to begin its much-needed leap past political and religious fundamentalism and toward Heaven on Earth.
In 270 days, we will know the result of this sliver of the push forward of human consciousness.  Like Martin Luther in his day, we can't know what will come of our aspiration actions today.  But we can look to his example and keep on going.




Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Keeping My Head Above Holy Water

"A government which has power to tax a man in peace, and draft him in war, should have power to defend his life in the hour of peril. A government which can protect and defend its citizens from wrong and outrage and does not is vicious. A government which would do it and cannot is weak; and where human life is insecure through either weakness or viciousness in the administration of law, there must be a lack of justice, and where this is wanting nothing can make up the deficiency." - Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) African-American abolitionist, poet and author
As I have slowly inched toward graduation from Seminary (spending twice as much time towards my Masters of Divinity program as originally planned), I’ve been thinking the effect the words of heroes in the cause for spreading truth like Francis Harper and the other voices for reason and change I have studied. With all the twists of life, with all the cross-country moves, the loss of jobs, new professional directions forged, and the financial hardships of a newly-married couple with advanced degrees, I have learned so much about myself since my partner and I have sprouted roots in the East Coast of the United States.  Above all else, I’ve learned of the need to find truth, and to speak it in a loving way.
So I’m starting a blog on my search for Truth and the obstacles to Truth I see in everyday life.  In politics, in religion, and in my little world here in Baltimore.
It is only recently that I have recently started to grow emotionally into a realistic expectation of success in my life, and I have realized that I have much to say about how society should function, pushing for the mutual success of all without the little mistakes and detours in life derailing their hopes.
First, I’ve had to grapple with several questions. What constitutes success in life? How do varied definitions of success muddle political discourse and the attempt to live for our individual and shared values? I believe that these questions are critical to understanding how people of conscience can repair the broken system of public and civic life in the United States. With the 2016 election campaign heating up as actual votes are finally being cast (however incrementally), the future of American society, and by extension the rest of the corporatized world, will be decided by American voters over the next 274 days, which will culminate in the November general election. The way in which people consider their roles in an interlocking and complex nation that is rife with misinformation spread needs to be examined. We must embrace our mutualistic responsibilities to each other determines the next phase of societal development.
Rather than continuing with my unfocused habit of online ranting on social media, I’m devoting some of my spiritual focus to direct my thoughts to this blog.  I chose “Head Above Holy Water” because I often feel like I’m treading and maintaining myself just enough to avoid drowning in the inherent contradictions of the modern American white liberal man, as well as the doubts I continuously confront in my Unitarian Universalist faith. While I am on track toward graduation from Seminary and ordination as a minister in the UU movement, I realize that I cannot enter ministry in good conscience unless I talk out those events and ideas in modern life that have given me pause.
If you’re up for an attempt to focus the energy I use to rant on social media too often, as well as provocative ideas on public policy, religion, sex, popular culture, and music, then I encourage you to make a habit of following this blog. With this blog starting at the beginning of Lent, I’m going to try to post something at least once a day during the next 40 days, as an effort to grow the habit of focusing my ideas and writing them out. I seek to focus my attention less on those who oppose my views on various issues and instead pivot to why.
Where there is wanting, may there be satisfaction.  Where there is anger, let there be centering.  Where there is doubt, let there be joy, for we are all living lives of questioning.
And where there is ignorance, may there be my analysis.  May I, as we all, find heart where there would otherwise be anger and division.