Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Religious Prejudice Against the Tillmans

This is unbelievable. According to ESPN, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, the guy in charge of the initial investigation into Pat Tillman's death-by-friendly-fire in Afghanistan, says that the reason Tillman's family is making such a big deal about this is that they're aren't Christians. Here's the link.

The part I'm referring to is maybe a quarter of the way down Part I of the story:
"But there [have] been numerous unfortunate cases of fratricide, and the parents have basically said, 'OK, it was an unfortunate accident.' And they let it go. So this is — I don't know, these people have a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs."
In an interview with, Kauzlarich said: "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more — that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough."

Tillman's mother responds:
"Well, this guy makes disparaging remarks about the fact that we're not Christians, and the reason that we can't put Pat to rest is because we're not Christians," Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, said in an interview with Mary Tillman casts the family as spiritual, though she said it does not believe in many of the fundamental aspects of organized religion.

"Oh, it has nothing to do with the fact that this whole thing is shady," she said sarcastically, "But it is because we are not Christians."

Surely any comment I might add to this is already obvious.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Humanist Visions: the World City

Last Thursday (April 19) I spoke to a chapel service of UU divinity students at the Andover-Newton Theological School. The talk was a variation of the Cosmopolis sermon I first gave in Middlebury, Vermont in January 2006.

I'm not sure what to do with texts like this. This is the third time I've preached on the same subject (Bedford this January was the other time), and I don't want to clog up this blog with many variations of the same talk. On the other hand, it does change a little bit each time. So I thought I'd compromise by putting a PDF of the sermon here, and link to it.

If you've never read it before, by all means follow the link. It's probably my best sermon, which is why I keep taking it on the road.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Unitarian Universalism and the Working Class

Delivered Tuesday, April 3 at the weekly chapel service at UUA headquarters in Boston

My hometown is in downstate Illinois, in the farm country. We had one high school, so whether your dad was a millionaire or ran off when you were three never to be seen again, that’s where you went.

My father worked in a factory, the same factory for my entire childhood. You could do that in those days, if you showed up on time every day and did what they told you.

It was a good job. The factory made cattle feed, and cattle always need to eat, so the work was steady. If you were careful, it paid well enough to support a family.

It was also a bad job. Dad always came home stinking of fish oil. Over time, the noise ruined his hearing. And the schedule flickered. He worked the day shift one week and the night shift the next. Back and forth every other week until he retired. All the workers in that factory did that.

If the night shift was working overtime, I didn’t see him all week. But otherwise I got off school about an hour before he had to leave for work. I’d race home on my bike and we’d play baseball. He taught me to hit by throwing me tennis balls in the front yard.

Dad had an interesting method for teaching me not to be afraid of the ball. “Let it hit you,” he said. Because that’s how Dad thinks: If the worst has happened already and you survived, what’s to be afraid of?

Unitarian Universalism has a class problem. We talk about it some, but not a lot. And when we do we often focus on the very poor: the homeless, panhandlers, people on welfare.

But we also have a problem with the working class. I don’t meet many people like my Dad in UU churches, not even at the church in my hometown. I’ve preached there twice now. Dad came to hear me the first time, but I don’t think I sold him on Unitarian Universalism. He hasn’t been back.

Meanwhile, I’ve met a lot of educated professionals there – the newspaper editor, the superintendent of schools, a professor from the local university. Because that’s who goes to a UU church.

Why is that? In some ways it’s the same mystery as our race problem: We try to stand for all people, but when we look around we’re usually standing with people like ourselves. We promote equality, but perversely, the less privileged would rather join conservative churches, churches that seem to us to serve the interests of the rich, churches that tell them it’s their own damn fault their lives are such a struggle.

One reason this mystery is hard to talk about, I think, is that a lot of us believe an explanation that we don’t want to say out loud: Working class people are stupid. The powers-that-be have duped them into pining for Heaven instead of changing Earth.

It’s a tempting explanation, because it absolves us. We don’t have to ask if we’re being stupid, if the working class doesn’t listen to us because we’re really only talking about our lives, not theirs.

Let’s go back to baseball for a minute. Batting helmets. Did you know the major leagues didn’t make batting helmets mandatory until 1971? You know who fought that rule? Players. Hitters. The league had to grandfather the active players in, so that they could keep facing Nolan Ryan without helmets until they retired. The last batter without a helmet was Bob Montgomery in 1979. The same thing happened in hockey. The last helmetless player retired in 1997.

Now, from the outside it sounds crazy that the players would fight a rule that protects them, but it makes an odd kind of sense. You see, the players knew the lesson my Dad taught me: If you’re afraid of the ball, you can’t hit it. They just took it one step further: If you’re really not afraid, why do you want a helmet?

When you’re doing something hard, like hitting a baseball, sometimes the mindset that works is not the objective, big-picture view – the one that tells you to wear a helmet.

Another sports example: I remember hearing Muhammad Ali say, “I am the greatest. There ain’t never been no fighter like me. There ain’t never been no nothing like me.”

If you ask whether those statements were objectively true, you miss the point. Ali was doing something hard. He needed to think that way to do what he did.

Working class people are doing something hard. Picture it like this: Imagine society as a giant maze, with success as a prize at the end. Some people are born right by the exit. Others start in more difficult places. They can’t just wander out. They have to make all the right moves.

Now, you might stand in a high place outside the maze and feel compassion for the people deep inside. You might ask: “Why does it have to be so hard to find the prize? Couldn’t we knock out a few walls? Why can’t the minimum wage be higher? Why can’t the government hire the unemployed? Why can’t college be free?”

When you’re standing in a high place those are great questions.

But if you’re inside the maze, that mindset won’t get you out. “Why does this maze have to be so hard? Why does that wall have to be there? Why can’t I have a clear path to the prize?”

It doesn’t help. No matter how good those questions are objectively, if I’m in the maze I don’t need them in my head.

Ten-twelve years ago I was visiting my sister in Tennessee. She also got an education and joined the professional class. My nephews never had any doubt they were going to college.

That Saturday night I got her husband Ed talking. He was researching clean ways to burn coal. It was a demanding job, but he believed in it and thought it was important. So he worked long hours and traveled a lot. He was also finance chair of their conservative, not-quite-fundamentalist church. They were raising money for a new building. That seemed important too. And his sons, my nephews, were both in elementary school. Ed worried that he wasn't spending enough time with them.

Job, church, family – every part of his life wanted more from him. What to do?
The next morning I went to church with them. The sermon topic was “Resisting Temptation.” I boiled the entire 20-minute sermon down to three words: Don't be bad.

I felt smug that morning, because I knew that Ed would have been so much better off in my church. We talk about real life, his real life. He didn’t need to be told not to be bad. His issue wasn’t Good vs. Evil; it was Good vs. another Good vs. a third kind of Good. And that’s the issue in my life and in the lives of all my professional class friends.

The primary spiritual challenge of the professional class is discernment. There are so many good things we could do with our lives. How do we choose?

A UU church will help you figure that out.

But I don’t think discernment was Dad’s issue. Because the factory was not a competing Good. It was a necessary Evil.

When he was pitching me tennis balls in the front yard, I don’t believe that any part of him actually wanted to go off to that dirty, hot, noisy, dangerous factory. He went because if he didn’t something bad would happen. He’d be punished. And in the long run, if he lost his job, I’d be punished.

He didn’t need help discerning what to do. He just needed to make himself do it.

And that’s working class life in a nutshell. You’re not following your bliss. You’re not pursuing your calling. You’re selling your time for money. The way out of the maze, and the way to get your kids out of the maze, is to go out every day and do something you’d rather not do.

Professionals have trouble grasping that. Because we imagine that we also do things we don’t want to do. We don’t get that extra hour of sleep in the morning. We have meetings with people we don’t like. We fill out forms that we know are pointless. It’s on a whole different scale.

Here’s what sums it up to me: When professionals retire, we keep dabbling. The newspaper editor in my hometown – he’s retired; he still writes. When the professor retires, he’ll keep reading journals and going to talks. But in the thirty years since my Dad took early retirement, he has never brought home some fish oil and mixed up a batch of cattle feed in the garage. When you retire from WalMart, you don’t set up a bar-code scanner in the basement, just to stay busy. You do that stuff for money, and when they stop paying you, you never ever do it again.

UU churches also help with the second major spiritual challenge of the professional class: inspiration. That’s what discernment is for: to find a consistently inspiring path through life. The ideal profession is a calling, and inspiration is how you work those 12-hour days without burning out. Inspired people bounce out of bed in the morning with ideas and ambitions. They stay late because there’s always one more thing they want to try. Those are the people who really make it in the professions. If you have to push yourself, and you’re competing with somebody who’s inspired, you’re at a huge disadvantage.

That’s why professionals tell their children: “Find something you love, so that you'll be brilliant and creative and energetic. You'll run rings around the guys who are just doing what they have to do.”

In the professional class, inspiration is the road to success. It’s the way out of the maze.

In the working class the road to success is self control. That’s what you want to teach your children: Resist temptation. Walk the narrow path. Do the hard thing you don’t want to do, so that you and the people who are counting on you won’t be punished.

That almost sounds like a theology. But not our theology.

Let’s throw one more thing into the mix: Second chances. Rich kids, professional kids – they get them. The door never completely closes on you. If your parents are doctors or lawyers, you can flunk out of two or three colleges. It’ll work out. If your name is Bush, you don’t have to get serious until you’re 40. The sky is still the limit.

In the working class it’s not that way. Listen to Eminem’s song Lose Yourself. He asks: “What if you had one shot?” And the fantasy, of course, is that you get one shot. What if you had one shot? You wouldn’t blow it, would you?

So you’re deep in the maze. There’s a church in there. It tells you that there’s Good and there’s Evil. And because somebody has done something incredibly generous, you get a chance to choose Good. One chance. You get it wrong, you go to Hell forever.

There’s another church. It tells you there are a lot of ways to be good. And if the good you pick doesn’t turn out to be the best good, pick again. It’ll work out.

Which church is talking about the world you live in? Which message do you want your kids to hear? Which one gives you the mindset you need to get out? You see, it isn’t just that a harsh theology justifies a harsh world. It also works the other way: a harsh world justifies a harsh theology.

Of course, if you’re already outside the maze, if you’re standing in a high place and have the big view, then the whole good-and-evil, heaven-and-hell theology doesn’t sound so impressive. It’s crazy. It’s stupid. Almost as stupid as batting against Nolan Ryan without a helmet.

The question I want to leave you with is whether Unitarian Universalism is bringing the world a message about life, or just a message about our lives? Can we speak in words that make sense both in the high place and in the maze? Can we teach both subtle discernment and making yourself do the obvious hard thing? Inspiration and self control?

I hope so. Because otherwise we’re a boutique religion. Otherwise we’ve surrendered the working class to the religious right.

My hunch, my faith – or maybe just what I need to believe to do what I do – is that we can find such a message, that there can be a truth that encompasses all times and all places, a wisdom big enough for all people.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The View From the Channing Pulpit

Yesterday I led the chapel service at UUA headquarters in Boston. I think the text of my talk, "Unitarian Universalism and the Working Class," is going to show up on the UU World web site soon, so I'll post the link later rather than the whole thing now. Today I thought I'd just describe the experience, which is an odd and fascinating combination of Big Deal and No Big Deal.

On the No Big Deal side, they do this every Tuesday just before lunch in a room on the second floor. It's just half an hour, which includes a couple of hymns, a period for sharing joys and concerns, and opening/closing words. So that leaves maybe 15 minutes for a reading and sermon, rather than the 20-minute sermon plus maybe 5-minute reading you get in a typical hour-long Sunday service. Maybe thirty people show up -- they keep filtering in during the prelude, when I'm gearing up to talk and have stopped counting, so I can't say for sure. Afterwards they tell me that's about the usual number of people -- way less than the 150-or-so I spoke to at my home congregation in January.

I had mentioned to my minister (John Gibbons of First Parish in Bedford) that I was doing this. And he, recognizing that I was nervous, emphasized the no-big-deal side of it. He keeps not getting around to scheduling one, which I'll bet is a common attitude among Boston-area ministers, who already have commitments for 20-25 sermons a year.

The Big Deal side of it starts with 25 Beacon Street itself. If you've never been there, the UUA headquarters sits across from Boston Common and next to the State Capitol. And I don't mean "next to" like across-the-highway and over-the-barbed-wire-fence. When you look out the window from the Eliot Chapel room, it's like your neighbor has a really big house with a gold dome on it. If 25 Beacon didn't already exist, they couldn't build it there today. The whole place is an odd combination of working office and museum. People busily go back and forth down narrow hallways, under the watchful eyes of portraits of long-dead folks who are legendary figures if you know Unitarian history and complete non-entities otherwise.

The Eliot Chapel (I examined a plaque trying to figure out if this was the same Eliot who was president of Harvard, the one who lifted the ban on Emerson and hired William James) is set up to be wide but not deep. The State Capitol is behind the speaker, and the far wall has tall mirrors carefully positioned so that the speaker can't see himself. (I was grateful for that. I try to make eye contact with the audience when I speak, but I think eye contact with myself would be unnerving.)

I stand behind a weathered piece of dark wood with a small plaque on it. This is the Channing Pulpit. It used to be in the Federal Street Church back in the days when Massachusetts still hadn't separated church and state. So delegates spoke from this lectern to debate ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. John Adams, almost certainly at one time or another. It's called the Channing Pulpit after the minister of that church, William Ellery Channing. Unitarianism doesn't have a Joseph Smith or Martin Luther type founder, but if we had to name one it would be Channing. You can see a life-sized statue of him on the Boston Common.

So naturally I'm thinking: I'm here why, exactly?

The last time I'd been at headquarters was in February, to talk to my editor at Skinner Press. (I'm writing an intro-to-UU book that we still haven't titled or set a release date for). I had forgotten the significance of Tuesdays, so I just missed the chapel service, led by William Schultz, ex-president of the UUA and ex-executive-director of Amnesty International.

I'm here why?

And then there's who the thirty people are: the executive VP of the UUA, the director of electronic communications (who invited me), a full slate of UU World editors (one of whom is playing the piano), a couple of Skinner Press people whose good will my book is going to need if it's going to come out looking anything like what I picture. And the people I don't recognize: Maybe I should. If I were really plugged in and knew what's what.

Finally, there's my philosophy of preaching, which insists that I say something challenging. If you come out of one of my sermons feeling warm and fuzzy about yourself, I've screwed up.

"It's intimidating," I had told my minister, "to think about going to the UUA and challenging the top people in the denomination. But if I'm not going to do that, why am I there?"

I try not to be harsh or needlessly confrontational. But the writing process always starts with the question: "What do these people need to hear?" not "What do they want to hear?" UUism is possibly the most educated denomination in the country, and our congregations are full of professionals with masters and doctorates. What's up with that? So I start with my father, a factory worker: Why don't we appeal to someone like him? Is it his fault or ours?

It gets easier once I start talking. I always preach from a complete script in 16-point type, formatted like poetry so that each line is a complete phrase and each sheet ends with a pause appropriate for turning the page. At that point it's just performance; I make myself trust completely in the infinite wisdom of the person I was when I wrote this stuff. The message is what is; it's too late to change it now.

And it works. I can tell because they keep watching me; their eyes don't drift over to the gold dome. Afterwards some of the people I didn't recognize come up and talk to me. One works with a prison ministry. Another remembers her father, who worked in an elastic factory. They've also been thinking about class issues. Tom Stites, the retiring editor of UU World, tells me I've stolen the sermon he wanted to do at the end of the year, just before he leaves.

The reaction is gratifying. But as the room empties, just before I gather up my notes to leave, I touch the Channing Pulpit one last time.

It's not impressed. It's heard better.