Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Different Kind of Christmas Song

For 23 years, this song has been as much a part of my Christmas as any of the classic carols.

Christmas Eve at my church probably shares much in common with the service at other UU churches: It is, first of all, an amalgam that blends the Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, and the Christmas Story itself into one grand festival of light. Yet even with that characteristically Unitarian Universalist syncretism, it is one time (not the only one necessarily) when we happily read familiar tales from the Bible and without apology invoke the names of God and Jesus.

Most years, our minister takes the pulpit in the guise of one who was there on that Bethlehem night of legend 2,000 years ago. He's been a shepherd, one of the Magi, Jesus's cousin John, an angel, and, I think, even the innkeeper. Some roles he's played more than once. In 1990, as American troops gathered in Kuwait to launch the invasion that would become the First Gulf War, he spoke as a Roman centurion. And in whatever persona he adopts to retell the story, I find myself moved beyond measure, my eyes welling with tears of comfort.

Tonight, he was Joseph. (In case you were wondering, he firmly pointed out that he was Jesus's real father -- despite the stories that later made it into the Bible.) He told of how much he learned to be a parent from his son, and how hearing not only the local shepherds, but even visiting astrologers from afar, speak of the promise that the infant represented made him see his own child differently -- an attitude that he recommended to parents everywhere.

When the message is over, and after we sing "Silent Night" with the traditional words, then comes another musical tradition. For reasons that I don't really know, we always close the service with a song that doesn't mention Christmas anywhere in its lyrics, a song sung by a little green frog with a banjo and a nasal voice.

It was an odd touch, I thought, the first time I experienced it more than two decades ago -- odd, and yet somehow perfect in its reflection of the hope and mystery and promise of Christmas. Now I have trouble imagining the night before Christmas without it.

When the older DairyStateKid was less than 6 months old, I began singing it to him every night as a lullaby. And the tradition continued when his younger brother came along five years later.

Tonight, we all went to church: The two DairyStateKids, their stepmother DairyStateMom, the older DSK's Buddhist girlfriend, and me. We heard the stories, basked in the warmth of the candlelight, sang the old familiar carols, and then joined together in this song.

Later, as he lay in bed in the darkness of his room waiting for the sleep that will bring Christmas Morning, the younger DairyStateKid, who will be 15 in one month, asked me to sing the first verse one more time. Of course I did.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Searching for My Voice

More than a year ago I began a series of posts on politics. After the 2010 elections, I got stalled.

The reasons were many: family responsibilities, my struggle to manage a growing an overwhelming workload, but also an emotional paralysis that arose from the events that unfolded in my home state and in the nation over the last year.

I knew what I wanted to say, sort of, but I couldn't find the words or make the time to lay it all out.

Today I read this article in Yes! magazine. It comes as close as anything I have found to articulating where I have been moving, spiritually and politically, in recent years:
I participated because I have witnessed overwhelming evidence that the economic and political systems of my country stand against those people who the God I worship stands for. My conception of God, inadequate as it may be, is better described as the Love that generates creativity and community than as a super-man judging us from some heavenly skybox. Such a Love contrasts with everything that reserves power, dignity, wealth, or the status of full humanity for some while denying these things to others. My commitment to Love requires me to challenge the increasing consolidation of all these good things in the hands of a few, and to collaborate for the creation of something that Love would recognize as kin.
Read the whole thing here.

ETA: I'm not commenting here so much on the specifics of the Seattle event that the YES contributor referred to. Christine, in the comments, makes some good points about that. I'm speaking rather of the overarching spiritual and political point of view from which the writer comes, and to which he speaks.

Now, where this leads me day to day remains, for now, unclear.

I don't think it leads me out of either of my spiritual homes. It does sharpen my longing to live in both of them, together, more fully.

I don't know what it might imply for my professional life of 30-plus years or for the direction it might take going forward. That's a particular challenge because, given my very real life circumstances and responsibilities, I don't see the sort of freedom that might allow me to simply abandon my livelihood as it is now.

I almost didn't bother to write this post. As I said, I've been trying to put into words, for a very long time now, a collection of experiences, feelings, beliefs, yearnings, resolutions that are still too inarticulate for me to be able to put down on paper or keyboard. I'm not there yet, so what's the point in writing anything?

But I guess I have to start somewhere. So let it be here.

Oh yes, and Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa, and a Happy 2012 to all.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A retired, Southern police officer writes about #OWS

...and what he says might surprise you. (h/t, The Rev. John Shuck)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Isn't This What We're Here For?

In the New York Times, Eric Weiner writes:
We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.
Surely this is where Unitarian Universalism fits in today. Or has the potential to. At least that's how I've always seen it -- and it's what drew me to, and keeps me in, this religious movement.

But, if it doesn't, why doesn't it?

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Thought for Advent

Stephen Lingwood has posted these Advent thoughts on his blog for a couple of years now.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jews, Obama, and #OWS

If you think that Obama is anti-Israel...

And if you think that American Jews care only about the president's stance toward Israel...


If you think that Occupy Wall Street is rife with anti-Semitism...

Read this.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why Do I Write?

Heather asks, and answers, as does Christine.

So here's my answer: To understand the world around me, and to understand myself.

That's the "deep" answer.

My first, semi-wise-ass answer was "Because I can." And because it's how I make my living (in my other life, that is).

But the very next question I find myself asking is, why haven't I been writing more -- by which I mean, why haven't I been writing more here?

God knows I have had more than a few things crossing my mind to write about... Questions to ask, conundrums to puzzle out... But I haven't been making time for it of late. That other life has been pretty demanding of late, which, when it's the source of my livelihood, probably beats the alternative.

I've been pondering, however, the question of merging my writing identity here with my public writer's identity... erasing the seams between the two.

As yet, no definitive answer. So I'll just keep writing, to see if I might eventually figure it out...

Quote for the Day

Heresy hunting has nothing to do with truth or with goodness. It raw paranoid power, nothing more. Heresy hunters are bullies. They will take your lunch money everyday if you let them.

The Rev. John Shuck. Read it all.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Song for Today

I've been ruminating about what, if anything, to write about today, and about this day 10 years ago. I have many thoughts, but they're not especially coherent right now. And I've been, and continue to be, preoccupied with work demands that have sucked out all of my time.

But taking a break just now, I saw this over at Will's blog.

It's a simple summation of the feelings I hold most tenderly as I think back on that day.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Do I have ADHD (2) ?

I saw a therapist yesterday. When I described my experiences, he agreed that my behaviors are suggestive of ADHD in some form.

One especially interesting insight: When he looked at my scores from my neurological testing from 14 years ago, one thing popped out that the doc who tested me hadn't seen (and perhaps was not then well known) -- namely, that certain large gaps between specific sets of scores -- even though both were in the "normal" range -- were indicative of this problem as well.

He's also encouraging me to consider trying medication (he doesn't prescribe himself, but referred me to a couple of possible psychiatrists). I will think about that. We have a follow-up appt. set.

Meanwhile I'm drowning in an overdue project.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Do I have ADHD?

Regular readers know that I don't often go deeply into personal disclosure here. This post is an exception.

For years I have wondered if I have ADHD -- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Not so much because of the Hyperactivity part, but because I've always felt it extraordinarily difficult to focus, set priorities, and overcome inertia.

14 years ago I actually underwent a neurological exam for the condition. I recently re-read the report. It was negative -- as in, no indication of ADHD. Indeed on the various concrete tests (things with sorting cards, flashing lights, etc.), I held my own.

Yet also, reading the report, I believe I downplayed my personal behaviors and difficulties that led me to seek the test in the first place.

(I took the test as part of research for a first-person magazine article on adult ADHD. In a way, the fact that I was rated as non-ADHD helped advance a general spin in the story about how challenging it was to actually understand and diagnose ADHD in adults. I was not and am not a skeptic on the concept, to be sure. But I digress...)

In recent years it has seemed like my difficulties have become more intense, but they aren't fundamentally "new". I've tried many different strategies to overcome them, but have been unable to stick with any of them for long.

I was not someone labeled ADHD as a child; I got decent, though not perfect, grades in school. But I tended to be forgetful when it came to things like homework assignments, and to this day I seem to find that I can't concentrate and focus until a deadline is right on top of me -- in fact, probably behind me.

I've begun exploring a round of counseling for this, in hopes of dealing with it once and for all. I welcome any insights you might choose to offer.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Not Your Daddy's Jesus

Plaid Shoes makes a good point about the dearth of UU resources on Jesus.

I'm working up a 10-hour adult RE class/summer camp workshop on contemporary progressive scholarship on Jesus. I'm thinking of proposing it as a workshop at the UU summer camp I go to, and maybe field-testing it as an adult RE class at my church.

Here's my initial draft.

Not Your Daddy's (or Mommy's) Jesus

New visions of the New Testament's message

Traditional Christianity teaches that Jesus was the Son of God who came into the world to be sacrificed as a ransom for the sins of human kind since the fall of Adam. Many Unitarian Universalists who have come out of Christian churches have rejected that interpretation of Jesus and left Christianity behind. Yet UUs are not alone in our disquietude with the traditional teachings about Jesus. A growing number of scholars and thinkers within the Christian tradition are also rejecting those teachings. Delving back into the scriptures, they are finding instead a revolutionary message of radical inclusivity in the story and teachings of Jesus and are seeking to reshape Christianity into a religion of Jesus instead of a religion about Jesus. Through readings and discussion, this workshop will introduce participants to various thinkers who are part of this new, progressive encounter with Jesus that is rippling through Mainline Christianity. We'll learn about the work of Marcus Borg; the Jesus Seminar; Brian McLaren and others. Short readings from various sources will be provided.

Comments and feedback not only welcome, but positively begged for...

Friday, August 5, 2011

Video/Audio vs. Print

In the news business, newspapers are turning to online video as the Next Big Thing, using it to enhance or sometimes replace print versions of stories they report on.

A number of ministers -- UU and non-UU -- opt to post their sermons only as podcasts.

On his blog, Will has a recording of something by Adolph Reed that I really want to get to...sometime. ("I haven't had a chance to play this," he notes...)

Am I really that unusual in my preference for print over audio/video? I don't boycott web video or anything like that. (There are some web videos I make a point of watching, in fact.)

But my bias is toward the written word, big time. Maybe its my general impatience and the difficulty I have sitting still. I can flip through really quickly and zero in on the portions of a text that are most pertinent to me right now.

If I have to listen to an hour-long audio clip or video clip, it's gonna be when I'm otherwise able to multi-task, like cleaning up my office space.

Am I that unusual this way?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Thought on Funerals

The Rev. Marilyn Sewell writes about funerals and memorial services, and in the course of her essay acknowledges that sometimes those who are mourned are mostly remembered for their faults:

But what if Virginia was a difficult person? What if she was a narcissist, who didn't really pay much attention to her children? Or what if she was a raging alcoholic? Do we really want to remember her, to celebrate her life? Yes, we do, just as she was, in all of the various colors of her life....

I nodded when I read this, and immediately thought of the recent eulogy that Bruce Springsteen gave his bandmate and friend, Clarence Clemons. Clarence was evidently a sometimes problematic personality, notwithstanding his talent, and Bruce was straightforward about that in his remarks, in a very loving yet frank manner, as befits a true friendship.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wisconsin, Protest, and Godwin's Law

There was a big event in our town yesterday -- the technical college that was said to be the first of its kind in the nation, the grandaddy of our state's technical college system -- marked its 100th anniversary.

Wisconsin's governor, Scott Walker, showed up to give a speech and was jeered and heckled by a couple of hundred protesters. (They were, according to news accounts, silent and respectful for all the other speakers at the centenary event.)

I trust there's no doubt among those who know me or who have read this blog how I feel about the legislative tsunami that has ripped up our state's social contract in the last six months since Mr. Walker took office. (And in case there was any doubt, I suspect that the foregoing sentence has erased it, even if you didn't follow the link!)

But I dislike the drowning-out of the governor's speech. I would have preferred to see protesters respond to him silently -- perhaps turning their backs, or holding up a big sign that observes he has made unsustainable cuts to education in our state. I think there are moral reasons to take that route, but I also think tactics, and yes, PR strategy, are still important. There may be deep polarization and few undecided people in our divided state, but nonetheless not everyone has the same emotional investment on either side that the most loyal partisans do. And for those who are less certain about their support of the governor or of his critics, I fear that the length to which the protesters went risks marginalizing their own message.

DairyStateMom made essentially the same point over breakfast this morning, and I reflexively agreed (because she's very smart, because I did agree with her, and because it's always wisest to do so when neither of us has had our morning coffee quota).

But then I paused and fulfilled Godwin's Law.

I would feel differently, I allowed, about drowning out a speech by Hitler (an act that would have carried with it far greater risk to the heckler, I'll note). So in that case, where does one draw the line?

"Scott Walker isn't Hitler," she said. "He's not sending people to the gas chamber."

Indeed he isn't. And I do deplore the casual characterization of political opponents as Nazis, from whatever corner of the political spectrum it comes and whoever the target is -- at least within mainstream politics.

Yet that principle embedded in that position, and underlying Godwin's law itself, raises* the question: Can we ever make that characterization? And what is the standard?

And if we believe, as I am inclined to, that the looming changes wrought by our governor, his legislative majority, and their corporate financiers risk increasing the deaths of poor people who will be failed by our healthcare system while systematically disenfranchising voters whose circumstances make it more difficult for them to submit to new Voter ID procedures, is the comparison more apt than we give it credit for?

Or, to turn to another context in which the accusation of fascism is lodged, would a president who went to war on the strength of lying propaganda, who authorized the torture of prisoners, and who in the process instituted a national security state that places increasing shackles on personal liberty and privacy, be legitimately characterized thus?

Here's a case that's not quite the same thing, but similar enough: The other day Will linked to an item pointing out the gross disparity between the prison sentence (15 years) of a homeless man who robbed someone of $100 and a businessman (40 months) who committed fraud in the millions billions.

"Some'll rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen," Woody Guthrie sang.

Should we be less willing to make such fine distinctions [ADDED] that treat the fountain-pen robber less severely, just as the pin-stripe-suited proto-fascist is?


*Free English major tip for the day: It does not "beg" the question, however often you see the latter term misused in just that way. Here's a good rundown on the distinction between the two.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Choosing Paths

Congratulations to Christine on her new job...

Reading her post (as well as Matt Kinsi's comment) got me to thinking...

I'm in my 50s, and to be honest, always tended to measure jobs by how close I thought they could get me to the goal of 'changing the world.'

So I chose journalism, first in the newspaper business and then, when I opted for self-employment 16 years ago, went to the less-lucrative side of freelance journalism rather than more lucrative means of employing my craft (such as marketing, advertising, PR and related areas).

But in retrospect, I'm not sure that always made the most sense. I wonder sometimes if I would have been better off doing something that paid better and at the same time left me more free to pursue interests in activism.

No way of knowing for sure, and I'm not lying awake at night questioning the route I took. But the one thing I realize now that I didn't then is that the choices are nowhere near as black-and-white as I saw them 15 and 30 years ago...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Summer Camp

I'm writing this post overlooking a placid Missouri lake 90 minutes or so southwest of St. Louis.

I'm here for the annual, week-long gathering of several hundred Unitarian Universalists. This group has been meeting for some 60-plus years, most of that time on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. Changes five years ago in the configuration of the facility that hosted them for most of that time forced a relocation, and this is now the fourth year that the organization has been meeting here in Missouri.

Summer Assembly was for a time an important part of my religious life and experience and a beloved community. My former spouse and I first attended 18 years ago, when DairyStateKid#1 had just turned 2 years old, and attended annually for years thereafter. It was there, in our 11th summer of attendance, that she told me that she had decided it was time for us to separate; by the time I returned the next year with my two sons, we had been divorced for months and I had met the person who would become the DairyStateMom of this blog.

The transition away from Lake Geneva was a challenge for this group of 500-plus UU campers, and it was followed by a period of true mourning. My sons and I continued through the camp's one-year interim site in 2007 and the first year at this new place the next year. For many reasons, I skipped the last two years, but now I am back.

Summer Assembly is as pure a distillation of the blessings and foibles of Unitarian Universalist culture and community as I think you will find anywhere. The spirit is generous and relaxed, the speakers tend to veer more toward the experiential and inspirational side of UU-ism than the dry and intellectual side. For children it is a safe and permissive environment, and there has been a special joy in seeing them grow over the years, many of them into sensitive, caring and energized adults.

So after two years away, here I am again. I am taking a workshop on photography to help me get more comfortable with the fancy new camera I bought recently for my work. I had hoped to take another workshop on Unitarian Universalists and Prayer, but that canceled at the last minute. And each morning we have a worship service featuring talks by Meg Barnhouse, one of our UU rock stars, who is our theme speaker.

Of late, much has been on my mind that all boils down to -- just what is it, anyway, that I want to do with my life? Summer Assembly has often been a time to contemplate that question, in various iterations, and so it is again.

So for that reason alone, I think this is a good place to be right now. And I am glad to be here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Something I've Stumbled Upon

Sea Raven holds a doctorate of ministry and describes herself as an "exile" from the traditional church. She's a student of Matthew Fox's Creation Spirituality. And she has a blog on Liberal Christian Commentary. She's also worked with Christian UUs and it strikes me she understands Unitarian Universalism very well...

I encountered her while perusing recent comments at Shuck and Jive.

If any of this sounds interesting to you, I suggest you check her out...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

What he said

Presbyterian minister John Shuck sums up his own beliefs -- and challenges traditional theology. Along the way, he quotes an apologist for the Trinity who insists that without a fundamental affirmation of it, "we have become functional Unitarians." Maybe, Shuck says, that's something worth emulating.

Trying to retrofit our belief systems to a modern understanding of the Universe, Earth, and Earth's inhabitants turns theologians and pastors into pawn brokers for ancient religious relics that fewer and fewer people embrace.
Read the rest.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Liberal Alternatives

I started this post some weeks back as a half-baked rumination by a non-clergy-person in response to a couple of posts by Christine Robinson. In the first of those, she suggests that
Most UU churches, it seems to me, benefit from being much more forthcoming about their denominational label.
Anyway, my post sat around in the drafts for some time, and now comes news that UU membership in the U.S. is continuing to contract. This offers what we in the news business call "a news peg" for moving this particular post forward.

I want to add one more wrinkle to the discussion.

Today people looking for a liberal, eclectic, non-doctrinal (or at least less-doctrinal) and progressive church experience may have choices besides joining a Unitarian Universalist church. They aren't everywhere, but the fact that they exist at all is intriguing to me.

They also exist on a spectrum.

At one end of that spectrum is a place like DairyStateMom's church. On the surface, it's a highly traditional Presbyterian church that is explicitly Christian in its practice and belief.

Yet parishioners with whom I've talked there talk quite openly about their own "spiritual journey" and an openness to "individual belief" there; the church institutionally is at the forefront of the efforts to open up Presbyterian ordination standards; and it is there that I've been introduced to the work of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, whose take on Jesus is certainly a radical departure from Christian orthodoxy.

The Easter sermon I heard there a few Sundays ago never sought to frame the resurrection in terms that had to be taken literally. And a year ago, the senior pastor focused her Easter sermon on Emily Dickinson's life story and her poem, "Hope is a Thing with Feathers."

I have said that, had I stumbled into a church like hers 30 years ago when I was unchurched and had not yet encountered Unitarian Universalism, I might very well have wound up joining it and never becoming a UU. Or, to put it slightly differently, if my 24-year-old self were to stumble into her church today, I might have found it comfortable enough to embrace.

Now, knowing all that I know now, I would find that at least a little bit regrettable, because I so value the much broader interfaith exposure I've gotten in UU churches.

One of the blogs listed down the side here is by Tennessee Presbyterian Minister John Shuck. As progressive and welcoming as DairyStateMom's church is, The Rev. Shuck's church is clearly further down at the left end of the spectrum, theologically and culturally, from hers. Except for the fact that its preaching is much more consistently centered on the life of Jesus, it would in fact come close to passing for a UU church, judging by its embrace of theological diversity and progressive social witness. If I found myself living in that part of the world, even as a UU, and it was closer than any UU church, I could see myself quite at home there.

Finally, there are across the country various progressive, often (but not always) non-denominational churches that while they primarily identify with Christianity, make it very clear that they welcome a wide range of belief and even non-belief. I haven't been to any of them in person but would happily go given the opportunity.

(Off the top of my head I'm aware of one in Wilmington, Delaware; in Florida [I think Miami], Evanston, Ill., and Grand Rapids, Mich. There's also a small Anglican group based in Milwaukee that operates in a similar vein, although to what extent it is an established church organization as opposed to just the vision of a few idiosyncratic organizers is not at all clear to me.)

It might be interesting to compile a comprehensive list of such places and map their location against the locations of existing UU congregations. I have no idea whether they tend to flourish where UU congregations are scarce, or if in fact they end up clustering in more or less the same places where there are UU churches as well, but filling some kind of felt need for some people that UU churches, for whatever reason, don't meet.

I don't think this is necessarily a zero-sum game. I am not saying these liberal alternatives keep UUism from growing or are some kind of "competition". And I am not saying that we should make our churches either more like or less like these other liberal alternatives. But in thinking about why UUism is shrinking rather than growing, it might be useful to see what insights we might gain from their presence.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Who Am I?

I thought Jacqueline Wolven raised some good questions in her post a few days ago, which I happened upon a few days later after taking a look at the weekly roundup of UU blogs.

This post isn't exactly a direct response to her questions, but it is inspired by them.

Up to now, I have run this blog semi-anonymously. At least for the foreseeable future, I expect to keep doing so.

"Semi," in that I've been upfront with various friends in and out of the blog-UU-sphere about my identity here. "Anonymous" in that I don't sign posts with my name and for the most part don't comment on other blogs except under the DSD identity.

So...why the secrecy at all?

The main reason is to separate what I write here from my public identity as a journalist. In that capacity I write for a variety of outlets, and I am not constrained from having a point of view. Nonetheless, I am inclined to believe I will feel a little freer about what I write here if it is not connected with my public journalistic self.

Now, a bit paradoxically, even in this semi-anonymous guise, I tend to be circumspect.

I publicly identify here the various churches with which I have an ongoing relationship: My own church, DairyStateMom's church, and my "church away from home" that I frequent when visiting family in the East.

For that reason -- and because my blogging ID here is only semi-anonymous -- I choose not to air dirty laundry (not that there really is any to air) about any of these places.

In other words, I have not chosen to use this space to work out personal differences I might have with one or another specific institution. I might speak more broadly, but leave it at that. In this regard I am following my instinct, but I bring it up to emphasize that my choice of a masked identity is not motivated by any desire to be more personal, particularly about criticism.

From time to time I think about casting the mask off entirely, and I think Jacqueline Wolven has worthwhile things to say about that approach. For now, however, I choose not to. I thought that it might be useful, for myself and for my two-and-a-half readers, to reflect on why.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Book Review: Proverbs of Ashes

Proverbs of Ashes, by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker

This book preceded by several years the Brock and Parker book Saving Paradise, which I read at about the time I started this blog.

Its central thesis is that the traditional atonement theology that emphasizes the suffering of Jesus on the Cross as a necessary redemption for humankind in fact sanctions abuse and violence, particularly against the oppressed.

As I've written here before, I have never put much stock in atonement theology. The church in which I grew up didn't stress it, and when I encountered it among some fundamentalist schoolmates, it seemed bizarre, wrongheaded, and even monstrous. Yet while I wasn't personally wounded by it, I developed a grim fascination with the belief system, a fascination that I've never really shaken.

Before I bought Proverbs of Ashes I had expected the book to be primarily theology, but it turns out it's mostly memoir laced with a theological exploration. The authors' accounts of their respective lives and the crises that led them to confront their own rejection of atonement theology are by turns harrowing and soothing, poignant and stark, but always boldly honest.

My takeaway message from it is that redemption isn't found in sacrifice but in connection and in self-respect. I get that, but, then what?

As moving and meaningful as I did find the book, I found myself wishing at the end for a more explicitly stated resolution, an alternative bumpersticker slogan that would state a progressive theology of Christ with the pithiness of the evangelist's sign I saw the other day ["1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4 Given"]. Of course, my wish for that misses some of the point, doesn't it? This is, after all, about a Christian witness that is too profound and too ambiguous to be boiled down to a bumpersticker.

Finally, there's a loose end for me.

Where does all of this leave the values of honorable and courageous willingness to risk all for a larger goal and principle?

I'm thinking most immediately of the Freedom Riders, whose story was told this week on Public TV. They willingly endured brutal and potentially fatal violence in the name of human rights. I don't think they saw the violence itself as redemptive or necessary. But they did see the willingness to endure it as necessary to the larger goal of making it possible for all people to travel freely across the land as they chose(although, as the PBS documentary shows, they were perhaps naive about the dangers they would face).

Less dramatically and more contemporaneously, I think of the resurgent interest in missional church, which emphasizes selflessness and willingness to lose oneself in service to the larger community.

Proverbs of Ashes doesn't dismiss such values as much as simply ignore them, at least as far as I can tell. It's that final connection that's missing for me, and that I'd like to see someone ultimately address.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Proud of my "Mother-in-Law Church"

For a very brief few years more than two decades ago, Garrison Keillor was married to a woman from Denmark and moved away to her native land to be with her. During that time he referred to Denmark as his "mother-in-law country."

For what I hope will be a much, much longer time (nearly six years and counting already!), I have been married to DairyStateMom, and for that reason, I have come to think of the Presbyterian Church (USA) -- and specifically, the congregation of which she is a member -- as my "mother-in-law church." The senior pastor of her congregation is a co-leader of one of three different Presbyterian organizations striving to open up ordination in the PC(USA) -- not just of pastors, but of church elders (who are the lay leaders of a congregation) to non-celibate gays and lesbians.

This week, the barrier fell. DairyStateMom wept with joy at the news, and I, too, felt overjoyed to see her church move toward becoming one "as generous as God's grace," in the words of the pro-gay Covenant Network of Presbyterians.

It's been tough to decide where I will worship this Sunday. Certainly part of me would love to be at DairyStateMom's church and to hear what their always-wonderful senior pastor says about this important new milestone.

But even more, I want to go to my own church and light a candle of joy and thanksgiving on behalf of my "Mother-in-law Church." So that is where I will be.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What They Said

I've read many good and thoughtful commentaries in the last few days on the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Here are three that stand out for me in particular:

Lizard Eater on the Psalms and how they speak to these events.

The Rev. David Pyle on how the Osama's death is likely to make no difference at best, and could likely lead to new terror.

And the Rev. John Buchanan, pastor of Chicago's Fourth Presbyterian Church and editor of The Christian Century, on a faithful response from a Mainline Christian perspective.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden

All day I've been sorting through my reaction to the news last night that President Obama had followed through on one of his campaign promises: To capture, and if need be, kill, Osama bin Laden.

I will cop to some moments of light-hearted triumphalism on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of last night's news. They are moments that, in a more sober frame of mind now, I would not have indulged in had I the opportunity to take them back.

I will cop, too, to the fact that some part of me felt a thrill of pride at the efficiency and dispatch of the military people who carried out the mission successfully. And yes, I also felt a certain smug superiority on the President's behalf, thinking how he was doing the serious work of helping to plan this mission even as he had to swat away idiocy about his birth certificate and assorted other distractions from inside and outside the Beltway.

I was proud of the solemnity of President Obama's brief speech on the events. I have seen some comments suggesting that having killed bin Laden without a trial violates our sense of justice, and I have found it easy -- too easy -- to wave away such objections. "You don't understand," I scoff back at the screen. "They would have taken him alive, but there was a firefight. So his death was unavoidable!"

I understood the glee and frat-party cheering in front of the White House by college students about the same age as my older son. I still remember the day he came home from 5th grade on September 11, 2001, with a note from his teacher explaining that the kids had not been told what had happened that awful morning, that it was thought better for them to hear the news from their parents.

But by that point last evening, I found the cheers and glee and chants of "U-S-A!" unseemly at best. And today, as friends responded in various quarters with a quotation from an apparently a possibly invented quotation attributed to Martin Luther King Jr.* about grieving the loss of lives but not cheering the death of an enemy, I found myself nodding in assent, and quietly acknowledging my own moral discomfort.

A superbly grounded young friend of our family who is spending this college semester in the Middle East posted on her own blog a nuanced and compassionate response, which I commend to wider attention. And at Deep River, I identified, too, with Anna Snoeyenbos's pricked conscience. My own sister, QuakerStateMom, spoke on her Facebook page deeply from her heart:

Am I relieved that Osama Bin Laden is no more? Yes. Am I sobered that our President played a role? Yes. Is it justice and closure? Not really. Was it inevitable? Probably. Do I rejoice? No. I have felt sickened since hearing the cheers... This is a time to soberly call on God's injustice: Mercy and Love.

God's injustice. That is no typo. It is a turn of phrase coined to counter the traditional justice of an eye for an eye, replacing it with a radical message of love.

She posted that not long after I had posted on Facebook a link to Eboo Patel's essay at the Beacon Press website, in which he tells of a friend who has joined the Navy SEALS (the same outfit who executed the mission to get bin Laden): “It is guys with guns that end wars, Eboo,” his friend told him. I felt Patel's essay grappled with the deep moral ambiguity of this moment.

I am not a pacifist. I do see a rough justice in the events of the last 24 hours, and I reluctantly believe that we continue to need a trained military to protect our land and our people. I respect those who have been called to service in that capacity, including, most recently, the son of a UU friend.

And I am also aware of the misuse to which military might has too often been put, even as I want to believe that other uses of it have been for a greater good in protecting the vulnerable in far away places as well as here at home. I wish that we could rise to a level at which military power was not needed, but I just don't have the faith that will be possible in my lifetime.

I think back, as well, to Sunday morning, hours before this news broke. At the UU church I attend, the sermon was preached by a pulpit guest, a local Buddhist priest who is an old friend of our congregation. One of the things he said was that everyone has a Buddha nature -- "even Donald Trump." Or even Osama bin Laden.

I believe that. Or at least I want to. Living it is another matter.

But while I have not yet grown enough to embrace pacifism myself, I believe we desperately need pacifists. They are a voice of conscience in our society and in our world. We ignore their restraining admonition at our moral peril.

And I recall, again, my favorite scene from The American President.

*Moments after posting this, I saw Will's latest post and learned of the apparently fictional provenance of the King quote. Accuracy is important to me, but I do share Will's sense that embedded in the fiction, there is a larger truth.

Further update: Reading further through the comments to the Atlantic item, many people claim that almost the same quote is demonstrably attributable to King. But right now I'm not seeing it. I do see another quote that is as good and seems well sourced; it happens to be the title of the blog entry from our friend to which I linked above.

Final, probably unnecessary, update: OK, what appears to be the case is that a false quote was inadvertently grafted on to a real one.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

An Easter Message

Crystal S. Lewis, writing at, preaches an Easter sermon that goes straight to the heart of the story.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Churches vs. Other Nonprofits (Again)

Scott Wells offers useful observations on churches and political endorsements.

But I still haven't found an answer to a question I had the last time this subject came up:

Why are churches treated differently from other nonprofits? This isn't simply a pitch to tax the churches (which I have suggested before). Instead,it's about why churches as nonprofits are classified separately from secular nonprofits.

Scott says the First Amendment is the reason, but (perhaps because I'm not a lawyer) I don't follow that.

Both, say, the East Bainbridge United Way and the First Baptist Church face IRS restrictions in how they can comment on politics (specifically, neither can endorse political candidates). Neither organization pays taxes.

Yet there's a whole special category of "church" for First Baptist Church. One side effect: Organizations that function as a church but are for some reason not structured in the way the IRS thinks a church should be end up being held up for special scrutiny.

It seems to me that to treat the First Baptist Church differently than the East Bainbridge United Way (or any other nonprofit) at best skirts the Establishment Clause: it privileges an organization simply because it is a "church". On the other side, it also forces that organization to justify itself as a church. Talk about government entanglement with religion!

So can someone explain the justification for this difference? I'd really like to know -- and I didn't want to hijack Scott's thread in the process.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"We are in the Universe, and the Universe is in us."

Neil DeGrasse Tyson on plumbing the depths of the Universe as a spiritual experience.

(via Evolutionary Christianity)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Blind Men, Blind Elephants

In the comments to my previous post, Steve Caldwell refers to a joke over at his blog that parodies the famed Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant -- a parable about the ineffable nature of the divine.

(A digression: Writing that I was reminded of seeing a blog whose motto was "effing the ineffable..." -- which led me to Google that phrase and see it attributed to, among others, Alan Watts...)

In God Is Not One, Prothero also makes reference to the blind-men-and-the-elephant story, and how it is usually interpreted: "No one has the whole truth, but each is touching the elephant" -- a single, unified God perceivable through all religions. He then turns that favorite ecumenical* interpretation on its head:

But this folk tale also demonstrates how different religions are, since it has been told in various ways and put to various uses by various religious groups.
For Buddhists, it is about how metaphysical speculation is pointless and merely induces suffering. For Hindus, it is about the ability to reach God through many paths. For Sufis, it is about using the heart rather than the mind to perceive God. For the satirist John Godfrey Saxe, the British poet who arguably introduced the story to the west, it's about the stupidity of all theology.

Now, I've always liked the story's message about the necessity of humility for anyone who seeks to privilege his or her own faith perspective, so I suppose the Hindu interpretation (or the Jain one, evidently) is most appealing to me. But I smiled in rueful recognition when I read Prothero's take on it.

As Steve notes on his blog, one lesson from the parady is about the hazards of appropriating other religious traditions and rituals:
Like the blind elephants, we may accidentally transform and even distort another's religion into a form wildly different from the original through our exploration.

A point well taken. But I'll say this: In reading Prothero it's fascinating to see how many religious traditions have borrowed from and been influenced by each other over the centuries. This seems especially true in Asia, as Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism all influenced each other (and where it's not uncommon for people to in fact worship in all three traditions interchangeably), but it is not limited to that part of the world or to those faiths by any means.

I've always been inclined to a more laissez-faire attitude toward the issue of appropriation. So long as what is borrowed is borrowed respectfully, and so long as its authenticity is not misrepresented, I'm inclined to give a lot of what some people criticize as appropriation a pass.

Reading Prothero just reinforced my point of view on the matter.

*By coincidence, I just now read this post pointing out that "ecumenical" is not the same as "interfaith". Taking that message to heart, I've edited the passage accordingly, and decided I didn't really need an alternative adjective.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Book Review: God Is Not One

God Is Not One, by Stephen Prothero

DairyStateMom got me this book for Christmas, and I finally got around to reading it over the last few weeks. Eminently readable and often laugh-out-loud witty, it will become a valued reference on the basics of eight major religions in the world. I have no real argument with his selections of which ones to cover and which not to, although I do wish that he'd included a chapter on the Pagan revival. (His closest is a chapter on the Yoruba religion from Africa, which has come to the Western Hemisphere in the form of Santeria, Vodun and numerous other variants.) Of course, modern Paganism is not one thing, and I'm sure there are sensible and thoughtful arguments against trying to lump its many different expressions into a single chapter.

My other principal disappointment (and it, too, is relatively minor) is that when in the chapter on Christianity he assesses the current state of the faith and appraises its growing edges, he focuses almost entirely on the rise of Pentecostalism and the conservative surge, driven mostly by Africa, in Mainline Protestantism. He thus ignores the very interesting (to me, anyway) Emerging/Emergent Church movement where the left wing of Evangelicalism meets a more vigorous and experimental progressive Mainline Christianity. (I would situate other progressive Christian movements, including Michael Dowd's Evolutionary Christianity and the Creation Spirituality of Matthew Fox, in this larger trend.) Again, I presume his defense would be that these eddies are so small within the larger river of contemporary Christianity that he had to draw the lines somewhere -- an editorial task I'm always loath to undertake.

While the book is primarily a narrative reference work, it's framed within an argument about how we discuss religious diversity and religious pluralism. Early on, Prothero takes exception to the common metaphor of pluralists that the different religions of the world are "many paths up the same mountain" and meet at the top there. The religions of the world, he argues, are better understood as going up different mountains, and what they find at the top is equally different, one from another.

One particular problem with the one-mountain metaphor, as he notes, is that it tends to enforce a view of all religions that sanitizes their more difficult and troubling elements in the name of ecumenism. Part of Prothero's brief here is to not flinch from those troubling elements and also not to paper over intra-faith conflicts and disagreements in his descriptions.

I think that Prothero's point about the deficiency of the one-mountain metaphor is true as far as it goes, and while I have casually accepted the "many paths/one mountain" image in my own conversation and thought, I'll try very hard not to do so again, and instead to always mentally footnote Prothero when I read or hear those references. I find, instead, a very helpful alternative in Forrest Church's metaphor for pluralism, The Cathedral of the World, in which many varied windows look out on and interpret a mysterious universe. To a great extent, I believe this approach avoids the problem Prothero identifies. (And yes, I am aware of Steve Caldwell's interesting extension of the Cathedral metaphor, in which he suggests atheism offers a clear plate-glass window as an alternative to the many different varieties of stained-glass presented by the world's faiths.)

Prothero's rejection of the one-mountain metaphor doesn't mean he rejects religious pluralism. Rather, he prescribes that conversations about religious differences can and should move from the arena of faith and belief to the more neutral ground of description, and that the project of interfaith cooperation can move ahead by simply focusing on shared values and objectives, rooted in the respective faith traditions and calls of the participants. Of course, there are limits to that, too: I rather doubt a UU congregation that has stood boldly for reproductive choice could find a way to team up with a Baptist church whose congregants man the gauntlet to discourage patients from entering the local Planned Parenthood clinic each weekend -- at least not on anything that has to do with reproductive freedom. But perhaps they could join together on a Habitat for Humanity house-raising.

Prothero says that the old kind of pluralism, which emphasizes getting along with our neighbors over doctrine, was "a game for religious liberals -- religious conservatives need not apply." Of course, to really get to the vision of pluralism that Prothero advances, the most doctrinaire -- whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or even Atheist or, yes, UU -- will still have to be willing to modulate their own dogmas, at least in their words, if not in their hearts.

That in itself may be challenging enough. But if it's not any easier, it's probably something worth trying.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Lament, and A Question: Please Weigh In!

Well, if you haven't heard yet, the news from Wisconsin's state Supreme Court race has just gotten positively bizarre: Thanks to a previously unreported 10,000 or so votes, the seemingly-defeated incumbent now appears to have a 7,000-vote margin of victory against the once-triumphant challenger whose paper-thin margin of fewer than 300 votes was wiped away. Given that the race itself had become a proxy war in the highly charged battle over union rights for public employees, the emotional uproar brought on by this revelation is almost impossible to exaggerate.

I have two thoughts about these latest developments.

The first, and big-picture observation, is that except for who actually wins, the new numbers really don't change the overall landscape. Before the vote-canvassing upset Thursday, I thought the smartest (if fairly obvious) observations were from those who saw etched in these numbers the deep and fairly even division of the state's residents. The margin is still in the area of one percentage point; we're talking roughly 1 person for every 8 or 9 square miles in the state, or little more than 100 people per county. So we're likely to see-saw a bit over the next few years, as we have in the past, as momentary circumstances edge first one, then the other party over the top. In that way, we're an awful lot like the whole country. (And our governor's lame claim that somehow it was just "Madison" vs. "the rest of the state" was absolute horse-pucky.)

As an aside, a county-by-county map of the vote [which appears not to have been updated since Thursday's revelation] points out something else: That majorities for one candidate or another are notably greater in individual counties, suggesting that Wisconsin has experienced the "Big Sort" phenomenon that Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing wrote about in a book of that name published three years ago.

There are, of course, already dark conspiracy theories being spun. I am not a huge fan of conspiracy theories. I think Oswald probably did kill Kennedy, acting more or less alone, I don't think 9/11 was an inside job, and so on.

But I do admit to questioning the way the 2000 Florida vote was wasn't resolved. I do think that big, corporate money in campaigns has hijacked our political system in ways that we are only dimly aware of, serving an agenda in the interests of wealth rather than democracy.

As I said to DairyStateMom this morning:

"I don't want to be a sucker for a conspiracy theory. I also don't want to be a sucker for a conspiracy."

And so I end with a question and hope to get some serious responses in comments:

What is the most bizarre theory about a long-hidden conspiracy you can recall that actually turned out to be basically true?

And that latter point is key: basically true according to a reasonably broad consensus. Kennedy theories and 9/11 debunking haven't reached that threshold yet -- nor have any of the other examples I cite above, whether I am inclined to believe them or not.

Any suggestions?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Wow. This is Hard. And True.

Christine, commenting at Spirituality and Sunflowers, paraphrasing something at People of the Second Chance, says this:

[I]t is hardest to give grace to grace killers. You know what I mean? And I say that because when I read blog posts similar to the one referenced, I know that I struggle with anger, and indignation with this sense of “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!” I struggle to remind myself of this, that I should give grace to the people who fail to use it. To be gentle in one’s criticism.

I don't know anything that has brought me up so short as that. I think practicing it might just be the work of a lifetime.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Happy St. Patrick's Day

One More Thing...

A sequel to this post...

(Thank you, Crystal S. Lewis!)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

I've Always Been One

I don't have anything really profound to say on this day of standing up for Universalism -- certainly nothing so profound as what I've read elsewhere today. I'm not studying for the ministry, I am not a pastor or theologian, I cannot point to a moving, transcendent experience that affirmed the beliefs I hold.

I'm just a layperson mumbling in the corner, thinking out loud, sorting out what I believe and how that might inform the way I live my life.

As I've noted before, I didn't grow up UU, but rather in the Mainline Christian church. I heard at an early age about the concept of Hell, and when I learned the Nicene creed, saw that it was embedded therein ("he descended into Hell..."). Yet the notion that Jesus's death and resurrection were specifically aimed at atoning for Original Sin and saving people from eternal Hell, and that belief in that atonement was mandatory to avoid that punishment, were always alien to me.

At one point I recall asking my mother something about Hell -- I was probably at least 10 and could have been as old as 14 -- and her definition was "separation from God."

But when I heard about the violent doctrines of eternal torture from Fundamentalists I knew, I was simply flabbergasted. God and Jesus were about love, I knew. Those other doctrines simply didn't compute. I rejected them out of hand.

So I've never felt wounded by the church of my upbringing -- although I've certainly been angry on behalf of others for the doctrines of fear they've been taught and have believed.

I will probably take a look at Rob Bell's book when I'm next in a bookstore or library and can find it. I am intellectually interested in what he has to say, whether he is or isn't a strict Universalist. But what I am especially interested in is, Then what? What does he say about what one does with the insight that God's love is far, far bigger than the pinched and wrathful deity of the Fundamentalists?

Because what I believe I need most deeply in the spiritual realm has nothing to do with what happens after I die. What I know I need most is to learn how to live, with myself and with others, in this world.

We do need salvation from Hell. But it's the Hell on Earth we need to save ourselves, and each other, from.

Why It's Fun to Have a Blog

Because sometimes you can just share all those goofy YouTube videos you just discovered even if they're so old everyone already knows about them.

Like this one:

Or this one:

I thought about putting up the one of Kermit singing "Dancing in the Dark," but it wasn't as funny.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Serious Question about Godwin's Law (updated)

Godwin's Law is the humorous maxim that asserts that, the longer an Internet discussion continues, the probability of someone raising the Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

As I noted over on Will's blog, its more serious purpose, as I understand it, is to rein in hyperbolic warnings of looming fascism.

So, back when the Nazis were rising to power, what (besides thuggery, of course) was used to shut up the anti-Nazis?


Steve Caldwell points out that my question has been anticipated previously.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Jesus, the Anti-Literalist

From Anne Robertson's "Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally":

No matter where Jesus turns, his efforts to communicate are hampered by those who want to interpret his words literally, and by doing so miss the entire point.

(Thank you, Crystal S. Lewis, who put this on her FB page.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

American Grace

I've been hearing about this book and will add it to my ever-growing list of books I want to read:

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam.

One little data point in the review caught my attention, though:

Half of all married Americans have spouses of a different faith.

That's something that demands unpacking, it seems to me. "Have" implies in the current day. Could that be really true? Or does it mean they married someone of another faith but don't necessarily practice both in the home? I'll definitely have to find that book.

And I'll bet Susan Katz Miller might have something very interesting to say about this...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How to Help Your Church Grow

Hint: It's not about whether you play modern music.

This morning DairyStateMom and I went to her church, where the pulpit guest was the Rev. Sarah Drummond, Dean of the Faculty at Andover Newton Theological School, a United Church of Christ seminary.

After the sermon (which I'll refer to in a moment), the Rev. Drummond gave a short talk about a research project she did that was written up last year in the magazine published by the Alban Institute, a sort of church think tank.

The study, described in the link at the top of this post, looks in depth at one UCC church that reversed a long and seemingly unstoppable decline: First Church in Cambridge. Drummond recalled visiting it when she was a student at Andover Newton back in the early 1990s and being overwhelmed by a musty smell that signaled decay.

A decade passed, and when Drummond returned to Andover Newton to join the faculty, she was struck by how that decline had reversed itself: the congregation was now thriving, welcoming new members by the dozen, most of them in the 21-35 age group.

In response to this phenomenon, the church, along with seminary students and Drummond, embarked on a study of its new members in order to learn how to better serve them. In the process, they learned what it was that drew and kept these new members.

The whole article fleshes this out, but here's the summary:

1) The new members welcomed high expectations of them for belonging to a church, but wanted and needed flexibility in how they might participate in the life of the church.
2) They appreciated being welcomed -- but when the welcome had a whiff of desperation, it was creepy and a turn-off.
3) They found comfort in a clearly stated belief system -- but wanted acceptance of their doubts and questions: belief without dogma, if you will. They also were drawn by the awareness that the church was living out its beliefs.

Oh, and by the way, this was a church that throughout the period of both decline and growth has remained liturgically (including musically) traditional within its denomination. Indeed, the sense of calmness and the sense of a space apart from the world embedded in its worship aesthetic was attractive to the many people who joined.

During the Q&A today, someone asked Drummond what at the church had preceded this influx of new members -- had there been some kind of strategy or marketing campaign launched?

The answer, she said, was that the church had engaged in a deliberate examination of what its vision for itself and its role in the community should be. As a result, it became much more connected with the wider needs of the community -- for example, connecting volunteers with a local homeless shelter that had been operating separately in the church's own basement for years.

"I'm hearing you say," I said, "that what the church did wasn't focus on, 'How can we recruit more members,' but rather, 'How can we be more authentic.'" Drummond agreed.

In a sense, it really was a case of "Build it and they will come" -- with "it" being not "a place that will attract young adult members," but rather "a principled religious community."

My point here is not to condemn contemporary music in worship or alternative worship styles. Rather, my point is simply to say that to the extent those are matters of style, they won't accomplish much for people who hunger for substance.

Driving home, I connected the insight with the text from Matthew that had been the topic of Drummond's sermon that day: Matthew 6:24-34. Specifically, I recalled how the passage ends:
31. Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32. For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
So it appears to have been with FCC: Instead of fretting about how to market itself to more people, the church thought about how to seek the kingdom of God. And that's what made the difference.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dairy State Distress: Part 2 (updated)

Evidence emerges every day of the deep irresponsibility embedded in Gov. Walker's power grab.

The latest is found in this story from the Wisconsin State Journal: Deadline looms for debt restructuring plan.

Walker's "budget repair bill" and its provision to strip public employees of all but the most meaningless of collective bargaining rights included a deadline-sensitive element to restructure $165 million in debt.

As reporter Dee Hall explains in the above-linked story, debt restructuring is something that has been done before, and could have been done as a stand-alone measure without controversy. Walker, however, insisted on an all-or-nothing bill that included his collective-bargaining-rights takeaway and has since refused to compromise.

The debt-restructuring deadline is real.

As everyone now knows, Wisconsin Senate Democrats absented themselves in order to deny a quorum and block the bill. That also had the effect of blocking the debt-restructuring, which seems likely to lead to the following scenario Hall describes:

Now it's unclear when or if the state will be able to sell bonds or notes in time to avoid a looming March 16 deadline to deposit $165 million into the state's bond security and redemption fund. The money from the fund is used to make the May 1 debt payment, which this year is $165 million.

So let's make this clear: Gov. Walker, in order to get his radical change in collective bargaining, is willing to hold the state's fiscal affairs hostage. In short, he's committed political blackmail.

I can anticipate a counter-argument that it's the Senate Dems who are the hostage-takers or blackmailers, in the name of preserving the collective bargaining rights of public employees. The problem here is that the burden of proof is on Walker, on two counts: 1) The radical nature of the change he is trying to make in what has been a settled and legal practice in this state for 50 years, and 2) the nature of that change to fundamentally destroy the human rights of a group of people.

For further evidence of our governor's fecklessness, read this, from Wisconsin blogger Jay Bullock.


I want to briefly address the question about Gov. Walker's motives.
Plenty of people argue, and I will assert, persuasively, that this bill is part of a much larger trend and strategy to eliminate unions and arrogate more power to capital. But I will put that aside for a moment.

There is a long-running structural deficit in Wisconsin's budget that does need to be solved. There are long-running concerns about benefit costs, particularly pension costs, for public employees. No one denies the need to deal with those.

But the real reach of the collective-bargaining-stripping position is to the rights of local public employees (rights that local officials have said they are not asking to be taken away). What that is about is that Walker's next budget will reportedly cut close to $1 billion in aid to local governments and school districts. By unilaterally stripping those bargaining rights, Walker is arguably buying his way out of accountability for the potential costs of that budget: telling taxpayers and municipal leaders they can effectively dump all of the cost of those lost revenues on workers.

Dairy State Distress: Part 1

Given that I live in the state that has become Ground Zero in the fight for worker rights, I've so far been silent here on the subject of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's war on public employees and their unions.

There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that work and family have taken even more of my energies than usual in recent months and pushed blogging down on my priority list. The second is that, even though this blog is semi-anonymous, my work as a journalist has made me cautious about public expression of opinion on subjects that circumstances require me to write about professionally. That's not a rule I follow without exception, to be sure. But it has governed some of my choices about what to write about and what not to, and how I write about certain topics as well.

My silence doesn't, however, reflect any ambivalence on the subject itself. There are many things that I view in shades of gray, aware that no side is completely wrong and many sides have an element of the truth in their favor. The battle going on in Wisconsin is not one of them.

Our governor, through his budget repair bill, is in the midst of a breathtaking power grab, one that is driven only partially by the state's straitened fiscal condition, and one that could easily have been avoided except for greed and hubris.

I know blogging standards call for me to post a variety of links to outside verification of what I'm about to assert. But here I need to cover too much ground to take the time to do that.

In case it is not already abundantly clear to the outside world, this battle is not about specific union concessions on wages or benefits. Days after the governor's budget repair bill being introduced, the state unions involved announced their willingness to accept the wage and benefit concessions as written into the bill.
What they opposed was the bill's wholesale stripping of all collective bargaining rights for local and state public employees except the right to negotiate wages, and that only up to the Consumer Price Index.

That bill represented a sharp, 180-degree turn from 50 years of Wisconsin law and practice -- a massive clawback in worker rights without the sort of public debate and consensus that ought to accompany such a huge turnabout.

Which is not to say that such a turnabout would be justified in any case, as you'll see from my further argument below.

I've followed labor issues for more than two decades, writing about them for a major metropolitan newspaper for nine years and, since then, as an independent journalist for a variety of outlets. I have wherever I have had the opportunity been a union member (and for two years I did work at a non-union paper), and via a small part-time newspaper job I have currently, I am a union member now. As a journalist, I will frankly acknowledge that I had more respect for unions and workers and their role than some of my colleagues and some of my readers. To the extent that my sympathies for unions meant that their story got more attention in the paper and in what I wrote than they might have otherwise, I plead guilty. But I will also vigorously defend the fairness of everything I've written to all parties involved: union, employer, worker. 

In fact, I consider worker rights, including the right to collective bargaining, to be as fundamental to democracy and to the good society as any other rights. They are as fundamental as the freedom of speech and assembly, the freedom of religion, and most of the other rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. (I don't consider the 2nd Amendment one of those fundamental rights, by the way, but I know that's a non-starter politically, so I'm not even going to debate that point.) I will acknowledge that, to date, my position on worker rights is not yet reflected in our Constitution, which is to me mainly evidence that the document is not yet perfect. I still want an Equal Rights Amendment, too.

Are unions imperfect? Absolutely. Have public employee unions (and private sector ones, for that matter) shot themselves in the foot at times? No question. Can workers be happy and productive in their workplaces without a union? Undoubtedly some can.

All that is beside the point. Inept politicians have not led us to chuck out wholesale the institutions of democracy; corrupt law enforcement has not led us to abandon the professional policing of our communities; sporadic legal misfeasance has not led us to abandon the rule of law.

For whatever faults they have--and I believe their faults have often been amplified by propaganda and bad journalism, while their benefits have been muted and obscured by the same forces--unions in both the public and the private sectors have been a bulwark against the winner-take-all economy and society. Their continued weakening has helped pave the way for an oligarchy of wealth that more and more controls our public and even private lives.

The actions of Gov. Walker--and of the Republican-dominated legislature, including a state Assembly that abruptly cut off debate early Friday morning and then held a vote and adjourned so quickly that some Democrats could not even cast their votes--are divisive, domineering, and bald-faced oppression. They are also deeply irresponsible, in the service of ideological extremism. And that will be the subject of my next post.