Thursday, November 25, 2010

My Bah-Humbug Thanksgiving

I don't know what the Thanksgiving equivalent of Scrooge is, but I find myself sliding in that direction. I've got nothing against gratitude, or a holiday in which an agrarian culture gives thanks for a bountiful harvest. But more and more of the standard Thanksgiving sentiments are leaving me with that bah-humbug feeling.

Thanksgiving is the holiday when we are supposed to count our blessings and be grateful for what we have. But there are good and bad ways to do that. In Luke 18, for example, Jesus describes this character:

The Pharisee with head unbowed prayed in this fashion: "I give thanks, O God, that I am not like the rest of men -- grasping, crooked, adulterous. … I fast twice a week. I pay tithes on all I possess."

In other words: "What a great God you are, for making a great guy like me. Thanks for creating a world where I get to better than everybody else."

Bertrand Russell satirized another kind of self-centered thankfulness in An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish:

Sometimes, if pious men are to be believed, God's mercies are curiously selective. Toplady, the author of "Rock of Ages," moved from one vicarage to another; a week after the move, the vicarage he had formerly occupied burnt down, with great loss to the new vicar. Thereupon Toplady thanked God; but what the new vicar did is not known.

If you listen closely, a lot of Thanksgiving prayers -- particularly the patriotic ones -- sound like these bad examples. Let me translate what's written between the lines:

Thanks, God, for putting me in a country where I get to use up all the world's oil. Thanks for making us so powerful that ordinary rules don't apply to us: We can attack other countries with impunity, assassinate people we don't like, and kidnap and torture anybody we think might pose a threat.

Thanks for a global economic system based on dollars -- which we create at will, so our country can consume more than it produces year after year. Thanks for undocumented immigrants who will do our dirty jobs for less than minimum wage. Thanks for letting us ship so much of our dangerous or poisonous production to the other side of the world.

We're grateful to You, O God, for creating a world in which it's so great to be us.

I'm becoming suspicious of the whole count-your-blessings framing of the holiday. Because most of what we count are not "blessings" exactly. They're privileges. They arrive on our doorstep not because we are God's special loved ones, but because we are the beneficiaries of an unjust global system.

Suppose, for example, that you had been born in Guatemala. Your land has been blessed with a climate and soil perfect for growing bananas. But your portion of this blessing is that you get to compete with your fellow peasants for the opportunity to make subsistence wages working on plantations owned by foreign corporations. Somewhere back in the mists of history those corporations may have bought that land from your ancestors (or not), but whatever benefit your people received was long gone by the time your life started. Your grandfather may have participated in a political movement to take some of those lands back, but that movement was put down by military force organized by the CIA. So your lands' blessings belong largely to Americans now.

Or suppose you were born in Bolivia, a land blessed with rainfall that (depending on where you are) varies from adequate to abundant. But (until a near-revolution in 2002) none of it belonged you. All the water in Bolivia, even rain that fell decades ago and was sitting in underground aquifers, belonged to an international consortium led by Bechtel. Somewhere between God and you, the blessing of rainfall got intercepted and reassigned.

So yes, we Americans enjoy a large share of the world's blessings. But it's not at all clear that God intended us to have them. We took them. And I suppose we could thank God for making us strong enough to take what we want. But that's a blessing on a different level than turkeys and pumpkin pies.

I know, most of us never consciously applied to be beneficiaries of an unjust system, or intentionally conspired to keep the booty coming. If we're forced to think about it, we may not even approve. So how should we handle Thanksgiving?

I don't have a complete answer, but I will make a few suggestions. First, after-the-fact guilt helps no one. The turkey's in the oven, and you might as well enjoy it. If you don't, nobody else will.

If you do remember the Bolivians, Guatemalans, and other dispossessed peoples in your Thanksgiving prayers, don't think of them as "unfortunate". That leads you back towards imagining yourself as "fortunate"-- as God's special friend. But God didn't distribute the world's wealth. People did -- through force and guile and manipulation, often in perfectly legal and transparent ways. Many of these transactions have resembled another Bible story: Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a meal. Some temporary need coupled with one generation's lack of foresight -- and something God presumably created for everyone now belongs to someone else.

Charity is fine, but that's not the answer either. The world's poor do need the jug of water you could buy them, but what they really need is access to the river. As far back as John Locke, the defenders of "liberty" have told just-so stories about the "state of Nature" that existed prior to government. But there's one aspect of the state of Nature they always leave out: The state of Nature offered full employment. The means of production were the lakes and plains and jungles where anyone could go hunt and gather. But a system in which even the groundwater is private property, whose owners have the "liberty" to do what they want with it -- not only free from government interference, but with government controlling anybody else who tries to interfere -- that's not a state of Nature. That's a very unnatural state indeed.

So here's what I recommend for Thanksgiving: Sure, count your blessings, but also count your privileges -- and don't confuse the two. And sure, resolve to give more to charity, but resolve even harder to use your privileges and powers and out-sized access to work for changing the system.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Current UU World: Superheroes and Generational Change

Depending on where you live, you may or may not have received the winter issue of UU World. The articles have been on the web site for about a week, and your copy may still be in the mail.

My cover article looks like it's about superheroes, but really it's about the difference between my (50ish) generation and the (30ish) parents of toddlers who are likely to be showing up at UU churches now and for the next couple decades. I'm making the case that if people my age try to promote UUism by making the appeal we wanted to hear 20 years ago, it will fall flat. This generation is different than we were.

Explaining that difference is where superheroes come in: Superhero comics (and the associated cartoons, TV shows, and movies) is a genre aimed at children and adolescents, so changes in the underlying superhero mythology can be an early warning of generational change. I'm pointing to changes that started happening in the late 70s and continue up to the present.

The heroes I grew up with in the 60s and early 70s had no role models. Many of them were orphans: Batman watched his parents' murder; Spiderman was raised by an aunt and uncle and feels guilty for his uncle's death; Superman could forget about any received wisdom, because his whole planet had blown up. In that era, an essential part of being a superhero was making it up from scratch. No SuperDad could tell you how to do it.

I think it says something about my generation, that this orphan fantasy worked for us. "The wisdom of our elders," I write in the article, "was an oppression we longed to escape."

But superheroes started changing in the late 70s. X-Men was created in the 60s, but it didn't really take off until the 70s. By the late 70s it was the hot comic, the one that everybody wanted to imitate. What was unique about X-Men was that the heroes had a mentor: Professor Xavier, who established a secret school for super-powered mutants. Young mutants didn't have to recreate heroism from scratch. Professor X could teach them to be X-Men.

Also in the late 70s, Star Wars came out. Luke is a transitional figure, with some orphan-like qualities. He thinks his father is dead, and at the beginning of the movie there is no one who can show him how to be a man. But a strange old guy takes an interest in him, and lo and behold he turns out to be Obiwan Kenobi, the last of the Jedi knights.

So Luke doesn't have to make it up. There is an ancient lineage that he can join, and a mentor to show him how.

After 1980, everybody has a mentor, and many heroes discover that they are part of some lineage: Buffy, for example, has a watcher Giles who can tell her about the lineage of vampire slayers. Even the older mythologies adjust: In 1999 DC makes the Batman Beyond cartoon series. It's Star Wars transplanted into the Batman mythos: The strange old guy is Bruce Wayne, and lo and behold, he can teach the young protagonist how to be Batman.

OK, what's all that got to do with Unitarian Universalism? "The Unitarian Universalist church I joined in my thirties," I confess in the article, "was an ideal place for orphans whose birth-planets had exploded."

The UU churches of the 1980s were places to start over, places to build your own theology. You went there looking for freedom to think your own thoughts, independent of any received wisdom.

I believe that's exactly what the upcoming generation doesn't want. An essential part of their generational fantasy is that somebody can help them figure out what's going on, and that the progress of humankind is something they can join, not something they have to restart from scratch.

Forward through the ages,
in unbroken line,
move the faithful spirits
at the call divine.

I think our 30-somethings aren't looking to start over. I think they're looking for the end of that unbroken line, so that they can join it.

But if they're met at the church door by 50ish people telling them that they're free to believe whatever they want, that's going to sound like an abdication. We'd be telling them, "I've got nothing to pass on to you. You're on your own."

I'm not asking my generation of UUs to invent a heritage. We have one. And if we're honest, we have to admit that in fact we didn't make our religion up from scratch. In hindsight, we are part of an unbroken line. We need to start retelling our story from that perspective, so that we have something to pass on.

And speaking just for myself, I'm getting a little old to try to be Batman. Maybe it's time to start thinking more like Professor X.