Vigilantism Is A Symptom, Not a Cure

A few years ago, it was all the rage to blame spree killings and mass murder on “the mentally ill”, as if the fact that someone shot up a church or a Denny’s qualified as a diagnosis. In the last few months, that line has seen less use, as the facts come out that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. We know that the people who most often do these things are white men from what now count as middle class homes, many of whom are simply angry at the loss of privilege and status that their fathers had. They want to strike out at someone in protest, and those targets are often politically chosen, not for the number of dead or the assumed presence or absence of firearms in the possession of others, but because the shooter is striking at some group he blames for the fact that his life is harder than he thinks it should be.

The new argument that has started to take over is, not unfairly, that we have a cultural problem, and that banning guns isn’t going to change anything. People are mad, and they believe violence is a viable way to express their anger. Drivers shoot each other on the highway, but children fight viciously on school grounds, too. The problem is one that is part of how people think, and some people own guns because they want to feel powerful; others own guns because they are afraid.

The thing that is missing from this argument requires one to think a little harder. It requires one to plan ahead 20 years, rather than thinking only about the next few. The idea that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” isn’t a solution to our cultural disease. That is a symptom and even a cause. The idea that a person has the right to inflict his will on others in public, that violence and death are valid solutions to interpersonal disputes is the thing that people are claiming to be the illness, even as they claim that the cure is more of the same. This is the short term thinking of an addict, who knows that the habit is killing them but can’t face withdrawal. “We can’t change society,” they say, “so we have to protect ourselves from it.” If you can’t beat them, join them. Only, “them” in this case is a class of person no one wants to admit they are siding with.

The thing this whole line of thinking ignores, though, is that policy change can herald cultural change. We can make something not only illegal, but unpopular and even repulsive. We can turn the wheel of justice, and it turns the wheel of education and public opinion. Where racism was once enshrined in the governments of certain states, politicians will angrily defend themselves against any public accusation of it now. We can do the same for violence, if we are willing to put away the weapons.

I bring up racism not just because it is an example of measurable, if incomplete, success in doing just this sort of thing. I bring it up because this same argument, that we have a cultural problem that laws cannot fix, was lobbed at the civil rights leaders of half a century ago. So, I will close this with a quote from the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr in a speech given at Cornell College and many other institutions of higher learning in 1962 and ’63.  If you swap the word “lynching” for the word “shooting” in this excerpt, you can apply it directly to the debate we are having today:

There is another myth that has circulated a great deal.  I call it, for lack of a better phrase, the myth of educational determinism.  I am sure you have heard this: “Legislation can’t solve this problem, only education can solve it.”  Judicial decrees can’t solve it, executive orders from the President can’t solve it.  Only with education and changing attitudes through education will we be able to come to a solution to this problem.  Now there is a partial truth here, for education does have a great role to play in this period of transition.  But it is not either education or legislation; it is both education and legislation.  It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated.  It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.  It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless…

make a man love me MLK quote

Go Big or Go Home

They say that there comes a time when you have to go big, or go home. That time is coming up for the I Am UU project. I have done almost all the work on the project for the last 5 years. For the last two, I’ve put in an average of 45 hours a week, not including Chalica. I have taught myself some graphic design, I read several sermons a week, I’ve built a network of contacts, and I’ve written 43 blog posts and all the other content on over the last year and a half. It has allowed me to feel like I am contributing something to the wide world while I’ve been a caretaker for my mother (who has recently passed) and my kids (two of whom have special needs). It has been an honor to touch so many lives, and one I absolutely do not want to give up.

What I would like to do is to learn how to do it all better. I want to be able to do the work offered by the UUA to be the religious educator that the I Am UU community deserves. I would like to attend lots of workshops and seminars. I’d like to go to GA and meet some of the amazing people that I’ve traded emails or had video chats with. I’d like to eventually be able to visit congregations as a speaker or to lead workshops. I want to “go big”.

What I am not sure how to do, right now, is to add all of that to the 45 hours a week I am already spending on this ministry, in addition to other obligations. What I cannot do is spend money I don’t have on registration fees and travel expenses. What I need to know is that the community that has built up around the I Am UU project wants to see it continue to grow and to become a better resource. I need your links, your personal stories, your comments on our Facebook posts, and what money you can spare to help me live up to the promise of the I Am UU project.

It is an investment in liberal religion and in sharing Unitarian Universalism with the world. It is about creating opportunities to start discussions about the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I hope to make it easier to explain our goal of a more just, equitable, and compassionate world. I want people to know that we will accept them, no matter what their life experience, and we will encourage them to be their best. If you think this mission could make the world a better place, I ask you to be an active part of the I Am UU community so that we can make it happen, together.

This is my passion. I want the world to know that there is a choice beyond conservative and moderate religion. Liberal religion is an important message, and I want nothing more than to devote my life to sharing it in a way that is ethical, compelling, and personal. At the beginning of the year, I gave myself until May to figure out how to continue to do so.

I am asking for your feedback and your help. I need your submissions to help get some of my time back. I need your engagement on Facebook to help put our posts on more screens. I need your support to educate myself and to further my own spiritual growth, so that I can bring what I learn back to you. If I haven’t earned all of that, then I would love to hear what direction you would like to see things go in.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

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How Has I Am UU Touched You?

This isn’t a matter of ego, I promise. I am absolutely humbled by the trust and responsibility of over 4,000 people reading my words and sharing my designs. I am working hard to be worthy of it, and to keep improving to be the kind of resource that helps people find liberal religious community. I am blessed to have reached as many people as I have, and it feels very strange to be asking you all for this kind of feedback. That being said, Faithify has a requirement that I explain how my work and my ability to keep doing this, rather than getting a job in a call center or a car dealership, is good for Unitarian Universalism.

The actual phrasing is “How does this project claim Unitarian Universalism” and “How is it claimed by Unitarian Universalism”, and I would love it if you all would help me answer that.

Please leave a comment here with your answer, or if your answer is posted somewhere else (which is wonderful!), please share a link. The idea to make a public ask came after seeing the first blog post about this fundraiser was shared on Facebook by a fan and Patreon supporter. Her words about why she supports I Am UU mean more than anything I could write about myself. It would be so amazing to see other people posting their support for their friends to read, but that is certainly at your discretion. If you do, please post it publicly and share the link with me so that I can read it. I will make sure that you don’t mind being quoted before I share your words.

I am also collecting questions for an FAQ post. Right now, questions include “Where is the money going?” “What happens if goals aren’t met?” and “Will there be rewards as on Kickstarter?” I welcome any other questions that might help people connect and feel good about donating. I want you all to know that I already feel responsible to the community that has built up around my work, and this will only increase that. You all matter to me, personally, and I care about helping you find new ways to express and even experience Unitarian Universalism.
Thank you, in advance,


Crowd Funding a life of Ministry

In the last few years, what started as an attempt to clean up my Facebook feed for the benefit of my non Unitarian Universalist friends has become a personal ministry that reaches thousands of people a week. My desire to live up to the support I was getting has lead me to learn the basics of graphic design and to deepen my own faith and connection to liberal religion. Now, each week, the things I write, design, and research are shared by dozens of individuals and congregations to be seen by their communities and shape the way people think about Unitarian Universalism.

It is a job that I never dreamed I could have, and I am honored to have the kind of community that has built up around this work.

That being said, when you start something like this as a personal project, you do it for free. When you follow it and let it grow organically based on personal effort, you end up with a full-time job that doesn’t pay anything at all. I put a lot of work into original content, and part of what makes this project so valuable is that the content is freely available to the people who need it the most: excited individuals and small congregations that need to make an impact in their communities. I am proud of having done so much to help share Unitarian Universalism with the world, and more so to know that there have been a few people who learned about us through my work and chose to start visiting their local congregation or the CLF (to which I owe so much!). I am proud, but I am also human, and I have needs that cannot be met with spiritual growth.

So, I am working on building a crowd-funding campaign to fund my life, so much of which I have given over to this work. I am hoping that Unitarian Universalism will express the value of my work in dollars, which I can turn into food, shelter, and opportunities for further education and development. I am inviting people to let me know what they think of the goals I have worked out, and will follow the progress here on my blog.

I appreciate you taking the time to read this, and I look forward to reading your thoughts.

Privilege and Paper Balls.

This story on Buzzfeed was going around Facebook today, and I felt that I needed to expand on the point it makes.

In short, it is about a social experiment that may or may not have actually occurred in a classroom. Kids were asked to sit in their seats and try to toss wadded paper into a bin. The kids in the back of the class objected, stating that it was unfair, but the exercise went ahead. Many of the kids in the front made their shot, though it is clumsily pointed out that not all of them did. It is noted that “only a few students in the back of the room made it.” It succeeds in painting a relatable picture of what privilege is, but it fails to point out somethings that people who have privilege often miss.

I think, as a story, it would make sense to point out that there might be someone in the front of the class with a visual impairment or a physical ailment or disability who still missed, but had a much better chance for being in the front of the class than the back. Others may not have taken the exercise seriously enough to make a solid effort. Privilege does not ensure success, just as some people with less privilege, through hard work and/or luck, might succeed.

It fails to point out that the people in the back probably noticed right away that this was unfair, because it was obvious from where they were. Many of them might not have even been able to see the bin from their seat, having to either count on a description, someone pointing at it, or being allowed to look at it from another angle before returning to their seat to make the attempt. Maybe one of them was brave enough to try standing in their seat. All of these are forms of affirmative action. They give a person without privilege a better chance at success, but they don’t change the factors that limited them in the first place, or not all of them. We can give a person a place in an institution that they could not fully earn, but they would have no role models, no allies, and the resources would not be in place to ensure that they could cope. We can give them some relief, but they still have to work harder.

The story fails to make the point that maybe even those in the middle of the second row who were still closer to the bin than those on the edges of the front row. Because privilege isn’t a straight line. It is a graph with a hundred axes. I score well on several important ones, like being a white, straight man in the United States. You may score less well, because of gender or sexuality, or better because you live in a country with universal healthcare and better market regulations. Your religion may be closer to the cultural assumption of mainline protestantism; Catholics have it better than Hindus through much of the United States. You may be a transgendered person who is lucky enough to rarely have that fact noticed, and therefore can live under the assumption of cisgendered privilege most of the time, or a person of Hispanic decent who looks white enough that people don’t discriminate against you for your race. Privilege is a tricky concept with a lot of variables.

I like the way this experiment sets up the discussion, but I think that it lacks follow-through in helping to go beyond the idea that “some people start closer to the basket”. That is essential in making it a discussion that reaches those people who need to understand it the most: the people in the front row who still see a challenge in getting that ball in the bin and don’t have to think about how much harder it is for the kid behind them because that is happening outside the focus of their objective. And we all need to be reminded, sometimes, that all positions in the front row are not equally advantageous, and it doesn’t illuminate every challenge that a person might face. If a person is struggling, we can acknowledge and hear that without diminishing the understanding that they might still have privileges we do not; it simply reminds us that, occasionally, perspective is also a privilege.

The Midterm Mandate: Stand for something.

I recently got a trial subscription to HBO. I would never have asked for it, and I can’t imagine making enough money to ever have added it to my cable subscription; a suscription that I keep mainly because you cannot get decent reception locally, and I really love BBC America. HBO is an incredibly low priority in my life. Since I have it, though, I have been binge watching “The Newsroom”.

I love Aaron Sorkin’s writing. I loved his movies and I have loved his Tv shows since my exwife introduced me to her Sports Night DVDs back in 2001. I found copies of the West Wing up to that point and I watched every episode until it was canceled. As a person who grew up Republican and wasn’t ashamed to call myself one until the 2000 nomination (and I say that as a Texan), I love that the main character of  “The Newsroom” is a Republican with fairly moderate views.

In an episode in the second season, he is asked about his party affiliation. He then asks why no one ever asks the question, “Why are you a Democrat?”

I can answer that. The Republican Party stands for things and against things. They have a platform that is full of value statements, if very little policy. The fact that almost no one agrees with all of those statements isn’t actually a flaw. It means that people choose to be Republican because they agree with more of them than not, or, in too many cases, they have a small group of issues that matters so much to them that they are willing to vote against their interest on everything else to support those positions. That is exactly why, as happened in “The West Wing” before, people are asked why they are Republicans. Republican Party stands for things, and even when Republicans disagree with some, many, or most of those positions, it matters to them to stand for the rest and for it to be known that they would rather stand on that ground and accept the consequences than to move.

Let me say that I have come to understand how dangerous that thinking is. I also know full well how powerful and seductive it is.

The reason that few people are ever asked why they are Democrats is then threefold:

  1. The opponents tend to think in terms of issues and ask about specifics rather than the party; “How can you support more government intrusion?” “Why don’t you just say it is wrong to kill unborn babies?”
  2. They know that the average Democratic voter isn’t loyal to the Democratic party anymore; there isn’t much leadership or vision capable of inspiring loyalty.
  3. Democratic voters aren’t really loyal to the party for the above reason, and so they don’t tend to own the label strongly in the first place.

As the right has moved the conversation further and further to the right, the center has been taken in by the Democrats. More people are calling themselves Independent with each election cycle, fleeing the GOP ranks without committing to the Democrats. They have gladly tried to cater to this ground swell, such that there is no longer a real platform under the party. If every seat is thought of as building material for their platform, every candidate adding either thickness or width to a plank, then they have, to use a phrase, spread themselves thin at the expense of depth and stability. And this, I think, has finally cost them more than it has earned them in an election.

When the Democrats failed to show up with strong opinions and a defense of their leadership, both in the White House and the Senate, people realized that the platform was about to give out. Nothing more could get done, in part because the Democrats had given up on doing them. They weren’t trying to convince people that they could lead, and so the people took away their leadership. It wasn’t that the Republicans made such a better claim, but at least it seemed like giving them a chance might result in something getting done. At the very least, it reminds the Democrats that they owe the public more than platitudes. At least, I hope that it does, because what we need is progressive leadership, and the Tea Party backed GOP isn’t capable of that.


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