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.

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Everyone else is doing it: Logo edition

This is a short post with my fairly unrefined thoughts on the new UA Logo.

Firstly, it is the corporate logo of the national organization. I like it less than the current logo, which I like less than the previous one. It feels like we are visually moving further from the Universalists, which is where our core message is these days. I do appreciate that it looks less… forced than the last logo, which seemed like someone was told to take the Flaming Chalice and Circles and make it look “clean”. It wasn’t at all inspiring to me. This one isn’t either, but it at least looks like this was designed from the start to look like a logo, rather than taking the existing image and making it look corporate. It isn’t moving, but it is eye-catching.

I wish it looked more like a chalice (I see a torch) and the circle was our nod to the Universalists old image, and I will miss it. I do like the font, and I like it in red, though I am not sure how I feel about the fading color gradient. It was pointed out, and I cannot now ignore, that it looks rather like a tongue.

There has been much made that this is just the first release in a wave of new outreach. We are targeting the millennial generation and those who have never been part of a religion before, to tell them how we are different. That is a good thing. They need to be told, and I’ve devoted a LOT of my time over the last few years to trying to get the word out. I am eager to see what else they have planned. I hope it is more inspiring than this image is.

Finally, though, I worry about the text. Not the font, but the actual words. It says “Unitarian Universalist Association” down at the bottom. That, to me, misses the mark in one very real way, and one that is complete fantasy. First, the organization that this new image represents is the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. That last part matters. The UUA is not the leading end of Unitarian Universalism. Our religion starts in the hearts of the individual, is shaped in the congregations, is mobilized by the covenant between the congregations, and the UUA is there to moderate that covenant. Without those two final words, we miss the chance to tell people that their involvement at the congregational level is the driving force behind Unitarian Universalism. We miss the chance to make it clear that our congregations each have their own way of doing worship, and just because you didn’t like one 5 years ago shouldn’t stop you from visiting another, or even the same one again, because they are each empowered to find their own tone and tempo, and to change it as needed.

The other thing that I wish they had spent energy and money on, which they have no real power to do (as outlined in the last thought) is to look at the real hurdle we face in communicating who we are. The real albatross is that name; those two long, technical sounding, non-descriptive words. What does “Unitarian Universalist” mean to us at this point? We need to either take the time to define that term, or to come up with a new name that can mean something to the movement we’ve become. It may take some time before we can find words that fit well enough to please people, but maybe that would have been a better use of resources if our goal is being approachable and inviting.

How can we better support college-aged Unitarian Universalists?

I am posting this as a place holder, to give people a place to make comments on the topics of campus outreach and ministry and how we can better support our young adults emotionally and spiritually.

Please post your thoughts and ideas and any experience you have. Please tell us a bit about yourself and where your opinions and ideas are coming from.

Everything to Everyone: Defintions Mean Exclusions

This is something of a follow up to a previous post. In that post, I talked about how Unitarian Universalists have been much more vocal about their disagreements with my writing than have those of other faiths and beliefs. There is value in that, and we need to be having conversations about who we are, individually and collectively. Sometimes, though, the criticism seems to be reactionary, more than out of some concern for my personal search for meaning.

Last week I found myself being called out for “anti-Christian” remarks stemming from my assertion that Universalists were different from other Christian groups because they rejected the concept of eternal damnation. Now, this may still surprise a few people, but that is the definition of a Universalist, and it has a definition because it is contrary to the teachings of the majority of Christian denominations, both historically and today. Pointing out that I was proud of our theological heritage was offensive to a couple of people, and one person felt the need to lecture me on the topic. For the record, I consider myself to be a follower of Jesus, in line with my Unitarian and Universalist beliefs, but that is a post unto itself.

Now, I fully recognize that we Unitarian Universalists have a commitment to “encourage spiritual growth” and to help each other in our “responsible search for truth and meaning“. I understand that this means that we should discuss, question, and even debate ideas with our friends and fellow congregants, in a way that doesn’t detract from their own sense of worth or dignity. I tried very hard to live up to this with the strangers who have confronted me over the last few years of my personal ministry. I have attempted to remain civil and respectful to UUs, non-Us, and former UUs who have tried to inform me of some presumed deficiency of logic or contradiction in reasoning. I have learned a great deal from some of them, and I have been less successful in maintaining my grace and composure with others. The fact that most of them have been fellow UUs is still somewhat confusing to me.

We are different from other American religious movements, though. It is important to an understanding of who we are. Notice how little fuss we make about our belief in gravity? There is no page on the UUA website that talks about our acceptance of the heliocentric model of the solar system. Those aren’t crucial declarations for us; people who deny those facts are not going to be swayed by our reason and compassion. Instead, we write proudly of our Universalist belief that no one should be denied equal rights under the law or subjected to public ridicule and derision. We devote pages to our embrace of multiple sources of revelation and the right of conscience in creating a personal theology. We tell people why we are different, because it matters that we are different from the Catholics, the Hindus, and even other liberal faiths. We embrace a broader scope of human experience than most Western Philosophies, and many originating in Asia. We acknowledge an on-going revelation, which is a crucial part of our theological heritage, though not unique among faiths rooted in the teachings of Jesus. These differences matter. They are why Unitarian Universalism matters. We offer the world a rare combination of love, acceptance, reason, and honest searching for meaning.

This particular conversation turned from a general dislike of comparison to a concern that we should not be defining ourselves in terms of what we don’t do. That is important, and I can agree with that much of the argument, but every definition is also a limit that we impose on the word. If there is no limit, no distinction between what a thing is and what it isn’t, then there isn’t a useful definition. I’ve written about this before, if anyone is interested in further thoughts. Right now, I just want to say that, while we should aim to define ourselves in positive terms and by setting goals, rather than citing aversions, being proud of what we believe isn’t the same thing as telling others that their beliefs are offensive or the mark of bad people. I am a unitarian, too, but writing that there are those who believe that Jesus was/is God wouldn’t be read as an insult by those people; nor is my observation that universalism isn’t a universal belief.

We have to stop being so sensitive to our past, individually and collectively, if we want to have honest conversations about our future. Unitarian Universalists need to stop demonizing the humanists and the Christians alike. There are plenty of each who want to help move us forward; to help us stay grounded in evidence while exploring what science cannot yet map. There were people who held the Earth as a sacred whole long before biology and ecology proved them right, and there is a lot of other ancient wisdom that we ought to remember while science catches up to revelation. There are also a lot of clannish and parochial ideas that religion has codified that humanity needs to outgrow. We need to be willing to embrace all of our sources and to create our own identity as Unitarian Universalists. We might also consider creating a name that does the same.

Metablog: Blogging for the Future of Unitarian Universalism.

I once had an idea of becoming a social media guy. Becoming an expert in an emerging field seemed like a good idea, and this was a field that I had both interest and relevant experience in. That was a short lived goal, as I saw that the only way to reach it was just to jump in with both feet. I quickly understood that you couldn’t become a social media guy; you had to just do it and prove yourself.

I’ve got a decent number of followers on Twitter, where I post a lot of links and quotes. My Tumblr is getting a fair number of likes with similar content, plus some observations that I intend to be thought provoking. I have 2 Facebook pages with several hundred fans each. What I am really invested in, though, has become content creation. I have started trying to create sharable images, with some success, that spread UU (small p) principles and ideas, helping others share those mutual concepts of faith. Most of my efforts, though, have been going into writing.

The fact is that this is what I am doing, right now. I don’t have a regular job. I take care of my mother and the kids and I write and “curate” links and, more and more often, create some visual piece that I feel should be shared. I’ve taken time off for other obligations, but I feel like I owe it to myself to come back to this and prove that my blog is a serious effort.

One thing I have learned about myself in this effort: I enjoy seeing other people respond to the things that I publish. I love seeing people share my thoughts and images on Facebook with their friends, knowing that I have given them a way to talk about their faith when they might not have done so otherwise. I love putting ideas in terms that people can understand, even when they disagree, because starting a conversation where there was none fosters deeper contemplation, which is the only way to build real understanding. I have seen how people respond when they find something that helps them say what has been in their hearts, and it is amazing.

In the information age, anyone can sermonize. There are millions of people now able to rant, rave, and ramble about any number of topics, and there are plenty of people blogging about religion. Most of them are just screaming into the aether. While I am not awash in comments, though, I clearly do have people sharing links to my blog and talking about the ideas that I present.

That interaction is what I work for. I’d love to find a way to monetize it at some point, but I am more gratified to know that people are thinking thoughts and pondering ideas in new ways because of what I have crafted. I am a blogger, and you, dear reader, make that a worthwhile endeavor.

The state of technology is that everyone can be a preacher. Everyone can be a journalist. Everyone can be an advertising agency. The only thing that differentiates the random weirdo from someone with real reach is the ability to incite conversation. That is also the state of religion and of politics. Being able to shape the conversation by creating the talking points and giving people the confidence to express themselves. It is only by recognizing those who have the ability to shape and stimulate conversation that we can ensure that people hear our message of salvation. We don’t need to sell it, but we need to make it accessible and we need to get people talking and asking questions.

I am proud that I am part of this movement, and that it still has life in it, despite many declarations from inside as well as out. We are still in a position to be part of the new awakening that America is headed for. If we choose to be faithful and bold, then we can ensure that love, acceptance, and respect win this time around. The world wants reason along side fulfillment. They want something that reflects how small the world has gotten and how connected the human race is becoming. We reflect that, already.

So I thank all of my readers and fellow bloggers. I thank those who are trying to create a missional form of Unitarian Universalism. I thank those who are participating in the discussion, and leading our congregations forward. I have often said that we have something great to offer. Now I am saying that we have a great opportunity before us as well. We have to use it by talking to people and making our message personal. Saving the world will come from the ground up, once we focus our religion on saving people from the culture that we hope to change. Culture is made of people, and saving the people will change the change the world.

Lutheran Pastor Makes an Excelent Chirstian Case For Universalism

A post from Brian Konkol, co-pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church, Madison, Wis. on the Living Lutheran (http://www.livinglutheran.com) blogs had some interesting points about God’s Love. In response to the naming of the Boston bombing suspects, he cautions his fellow Lutheran’s to be patient and merciful. It is a lovely piece of writing, and I recommend reading it in its entirety for yourself. For the sake of clarity, I will quote sections here, specifically from the last 4 paragraphs.

“While we often celebrate the inclusive love of God, in many ways we recognize how shocking — and even scandalous — such love actually is. As Jesus himself died on the cross in the company of criminals, we affirm that in God’s eyes we are not defined by our worst acts, and even those responsible for evil deeds are offered the gift of grace, love and forgiveness.”

This point couldn’t be more crucial. Given the immensity of God, as presumed creator of the Universe, how could our sins ever seem less than awful, like the mother rodent eating her own young for reasons we can’t always understand in the moment. People do horrible things to other people every single day, and this seems to have been happening since the beginning of humanity itself. At the same time, how can these terrible deeds ever seem worthy of damnation? Aren’t they temporal acts that simply take a finite life and deeds that, however cruel, can be recorded and accounted for? How then can it be grace to torment anyone for eternity for these brief misdeeds?

“While we support the institutions that hold us accountable for our offenses, and we affirm the desire to punish those found guilty of crime, we also recognize that each and every person falls short of God’s divine law, thus not only are all people guilty in some shape or form, but by God’s grace we never get the punishment that we actually deserve. All together, regardless of who we are or what we have done or left undone, we receive the life-giving promise of the gospel and blessed assurance that God will never leave us or forsake us. This is the scandalous nature of God’s criminal justice.

Absolutely beautifully said. If you believe in a loving God, worthy of reverence, then you must admit that this is God’s desire. If it is God’s will that all will be saved; if that was the mission of his prophets and his Messiah, then how can it fail? If that was the intent at the creation of the Universe, then it is woven into every atom and every force. We come back to the idea that if God is not benevolent, powerful, and wise, then why should we offer praise? If God cannot save every soul spawned by creation, then which of these do we rule out, because at least one of these three qualities is missing.

And so, can God actually love those responsible for the recent bombings in Boston? As shocking and troubling as it may sound, and as tormented as it might make us feel, we affirm in Jesus’ name that God can (and does)… God does not give up on anyone, not even those responsible for acts of terrorism.

Now, his wording here isn’t entirely clear: is he affirming this “in Jesus’ name”, or affirming that this can be done “in Jesus’ name”? Either way, I see the same basic message. He leaves out the idea that these men must repent, must submit, must renounce anything of themselves or their doings. I want to believe that this is intentional, because it doesn’t need to be there for this to make sense, and it might ruin the whole line of thought. God’s love is so amazing that even those who have done terrible things are still loved, and can enter heaven, though we cannot possibly understand how with our mortal limitations.

He finishes by saying

“While we cannot passively accept the massive pain and suffering that is taking place in Boston and other areas around the world, one of the ways we can reconcile, transform and empower is through an outpouring of love and compassion for both victims and victimizers. As the God made known to us in Jesus embodied the way of restoration over retaliation, may we learn to follow this difficult and necessary path, in Boston and in all places, so that we may realize God’s criminal justice throughout the world.”

That message would be uncomfortable in even a Unitarian Universalist Church, and yet we would recognize the truth of it, and we would accept that we have to try to understand, to learn, and to forgive, even if forgiveness is never sought by the people who have done wrong. It is a wonderful indictment, intentional or accidental, of the concept of eternal damnation.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has a strange relationship with Universalism. It is rarely stated clearly, though a passage from “Principles of Lutherian Theology” that clearly lays out a case for Universal Salvation, used to be part of their website, yet they also teach that the The Athanasian Creed is part of their belief structure, and that is certainly does not speak of Universal Salvation, but also is not a doctrine of damnation, but of destruction, which is arguably more in-line with the temporal nature of human misdeed. I like the tone of this post, and it gives me hope that the movement towards accepting Universal Salvation is growing.