Since I last spoke here in Albion in May, 2012, I have become a student and advocate of something called “Cultural Intelligence.” My interest began with a course of lectures on DVDs entitled “Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are” presented by Professor David Livermore, who is the President of the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan. That course led me to seek out a number of books and sources via the internet which have helped me to understand so much of what I have experienced but not understood in the past relating to our culture and others.
Just a year ago, in August, 2014, I was honored to be a speaker at the 34th World Congress of the International Association for Religious Freedom in Birmingham, England. My topic was “Cultural Intelligence: the Key to Right Relationship.” That talk has been published in the June, 2015 journal, “Inter religious Insight.” This past June, I represented the Unitarian Universalist Association at an International Theological Symposium held in Shillong, India, the topic being: “Theology or Culture: What Shapes Unitarian Universalist Culture in the 21st Century?”
So, yes, I have become a passionate advocate of the science of cultural intelligence, a new way of understanding ourselves and of relating to the rest of the world. Please join me in the quest.
The study of different cultures worldwide using modern technology has developed extensively, beginning with data that was collected in the 1960’s and 70’s. No, it wasn’t the state department or the military, not Harvard or Stanford or other academic giants doing this work. It was IBM, with its massive multinational presence and its commitment to modern research and making money, that did the testing and evaluating that led to the creation of what is today an academic discipline. I understand this to be as much a science as sociology or anthropology, with information based on thousands of experiments covering multiple aspects of culture and yielding results that are replicable and statistically significant, complete with standard deviations, graphs, and the precision of science. We have progressed way beyond the old days of exotic tales of “the other.” Today we know that cultures are different, that people think differently in different parts of the world, and we should acknowledge that such differences need to be recognized and understood before any sort of right relationships can be achieved among peoples.
So, what do I mean by “culture”? I’m not talking about the everyday concept of artistic refinement. Quoting one authority: “Culture is always a collective phenomenon, because it is at least partly shared with people who live or lived within the same social environment, which is where it was learned. Culture consists of the unwritten rules of the social game. It is the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others.” ( Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, p.6.)
As we live in the digital age, it seems appropriate that through research initiated by IBM, we learn of the mind as a kind of computer, which is programmed with something called “culture.” We all have it. We may or may not be aware of any part of it, and we certainly don’t know about all of it. It is all, entirely, learned, not genetically passed on, learned from the moment we are conceived, and largely in place before adolescence. Our culture is what we have learned in order to function in our society, and to a great extent, it rules our lives.
Culture is not to be confused with human nature, which is common to all human beings. To continue the computer analogy, human nature is the inherited part of our mental software, the part that says we all have the ability to feel fear, anger, joy, love, sadness, etc. Human nature is the “‘operating system’ that determines our physical and basic psychological functioning.” (Ibid.)
So, our human nature is inherited, and our culture is learned. There is one other part of our mental composition that needs to be acknowledged, and that is our individual personality, that part that makes you you and me me, which is both inherited and learned. Continuing the computer analogy, individual personality might be seen as the individual computer through which each life plays out.
Is that clear: you as an individual computer, different from other computers, with an operating system called “human nature” shared by everyone, and a program called “culture” shared only by your group? At the moment, that’s the best I can do.
Another analogy, offered by David Livermore, is that of an iceberg. The tiny amount of who we are, perhaps ten percent, that shows above the waterline, contains our human nature, and what Livermore calls “Cultural Artifacts” which are those things most obvious in different cultures: “art, clothing, food, money, customs, gestures, etc.” (Cultural Intelligence: Improving Your CQ to Engage Our Multicultural World, p. 85.) The obvious is what we see and hear; it’s what we recognize when we first encounter a different group of people. Hidden below the surface of this great iceberg is the part of culture that we least recognize or understand: “cultural values and assumptions, unconscious taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, and feelings.” (Ibid. p. 85) Significantly this is the largest part of culture, perhaps ninety percent, and it is completely out of view, beyond our awareness in others, and most likely unrecognized for what it is in ourselves. Acknowledging, studying, and understanding this massive area of being human, culture, is the focus of much ongoing study and speculation.
There are many different ways of measuring, naming, evaluating, testing, or in any way dealing with human characteristics. The studies that I have reviewed focus mainly on what are called “dimensions of cultures. A dimension is an aspect of a culture that can be measured relative to other cultures.” (Hofstede, p. 31.)
Dimensions of cultures include values related to “identity, hierarchy, risk, and time.” (Livermore, p. 123.)
Identity. Who are you? As an American, most likely you respond with some sort of self definition. We Americans have a pretty clear idea of ourselves as individuals; in fact, it turns out that we are the most individualistic culture in the world. It may come as a surprise to learn that a great majority of the people of the world don’t have this individualistic identity. For most cultures in the world today, most especially Chinese, Southeast Asian and many Hispanic peoples , “we” is more important than “I.” A person has an identity as a part of a group. Rather than “individualist,” these peoples are “collectivists.” Quoting from my sources: “In the collectivist family, children learn to take their bearings from others when it comes to opinions. Personal opinions do not exist: opinions are predetermined by the group. If a new issue comes up on which there is no established group opinion, some kind of family conference is necessary before an opinion can be given. A child who repeatedly voices opinions deviating from what is collectively felt is considered to have a bad character. In the individualist family, on the contrary, children are expected and encouraged to develop opinions of their own, and a child who always only reflects the opinions of others is considered to have a weak character.” (Hofstede, p. 107.)
“In most collectivist cultures, direct confrontation of another person is considered rude and undesirable. The word no is seldom used, because saying ‘no’ is a confrontation; ‘you may be right’ and ‘we will think about it’ are polite ways of turning down a request.” (Ibid. p.106) “In individualist cultures, on the other hand, speaking one’s mind is a virtue.” (Ibid. p. 107)
“In individualistic societies, the norm is that one should treat everybody alike. In sociological jargon, this is known as universalism…. In collectivist societies the reverse is true. As the distinction between ‘our group’ and ‘other groups’ is at the very root of people’s consciousness, treating one’s friends better than others is natural and ethical… Sociologists call this way of acting particularism…” (Ibid. pp. 122-23.) I would add that most groups in the world that call themselves “Unitarian” do not add on “Universalist,” and that these groups are inevitably more collectivist than we are.
Please note that while we Americans are extremely individualistic, and other cultures like the Chinese are extremely collectivist, most cultures fall somewhere in between on a continuum. That is true with all the dimensions: that they are not simply either/or choices, but that many cultures, while favoring one or the other extreme, lie somewhere between.
A second dimension of culture is hierarchy. All cultures have degrees of inequality, which is another way of saying that some people have more power than others. That gap between those with and those without power is called “power distance.” In some countries, there is a clear separation between the rulers and the ruled, the managers and the managed, the teachers and the learners, which is maintained and respected. These are high power distance countries. Other countries, like ours, are low power distance, where often the boundaries are not clear.
Power distance can “be defined as the extent to which the less (and the more) powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. “ (Ibid. p.61) We need to understand that a majority of the people in the world fall into specific groups that hold or lack power in ways that are most likely unfamiliar to us, and they consequently behave in ways we don’t understand.
Next in our dimensions of culture is risk. It is clear that countries “differ in their tolerance of the ambiguous and the unpredictable.” (Ibid. p. 189.) In some countries, the people share mental programming that leads them to avoid uncertainty. To do that, they create laws that direct how everything should be done, and they follow those laws. Other countries with lower uncertainty avoidance have fewer laws, fewer rules, and let day-to-day matters work their way out.
The USA is a mixed bag, for example, with the low uncertainty avoidance of the NRA conflicting with those who want tougher gun laws. In raising children, weak uncertainty avoidance family life is more relaxed and the rules for children on what is dirty or taboo are lenient. Strong uncertainty avoidance family life is more stressful, and the rules for children on what is dirty or taboo are tight .(Ibid. p. 203)
“Students from strong uncertainty-avoidance countries expect their teachers to be the experts who have all the answers. Teachers who use cryptic academic language are respected; some of the eminent gurus from these countries write such difficult prose that one needs commentaries by more ordinary creatures explaining what the guru really meant.” “Students from weak uncertainty-avoidance countries accept a teacher who says ‘I don’t know.‘ Their respect goes to teachers who use plain language and to books explaining difficult issues in ordinary terms.” (Ibid. p. 206)
Another value dimension is time. We Americans pretty much agree that time is money, and that we shouldn’t waste time. Our culture goes by the clock. Yet we exist largely within a limited, short term time perspective. We neither know nor seem to care very much about the past, and we seldom plan very far into the future.
Much of the world doesn’t share our sense of time. In many countries, relationships trump schedules. Conversations and meetings end when they are finished rather than when time runs out–which, of course, requires revisions of future plans, which is all part of the daily routine. For many cultures, the past–history going back hundreds or even thousands of years–is a part of day-to-day thinking, and planning for the future may span decades or more, forming a long term time perspective.
I have mentioned four dimensions of cultures: Identity (individualist/collectivist), Hierarchy (high and low power distance), Risk (high and low uncertainty avoidance), and Time (clock and event time). There is so much more to each of these. Other major dimensions are Masculinity/Femininity or Competitiveness/Cooperativeness, Explicit/Implicit Communication, and Being/Doing, which I can only list here, but which are enormously important.
When enough studies are done and validated, it is possible to draw up a profile of the culture of a country. This work has been done, focussing on the cultural programming of people in most countries of the world. We have lists of characteristics and behaviors of just about every culture: Japanese, German, British, Chinese, Ethiopian, Mexican, and yes, Americans from the USA.
Once it is clear that we Americans are the most individualistic culture in the world–radically individualistic, as well as low power distance, low uncertainty avoidance, and short term time perspective, we begin to understand that we are thinking, evaluating, and acting in ways that are different from and confusing to a majority of the people in the rest of the world. We just assume that our way is the right way, and we send off our ambassadors, our corporate representatives, our Peace Corps, our military, with the idea that world wants or needs to be like us. This is clearly not the case.
Having accumulated so much information on the various cultures of the world, the next step was to develop a way to teach and evaluate a person’s understanding of cultures as “Cultural Intelligence.” “The first publication of Cultural Intelligence research was in….2003….” so this is all a relatively new field. (Livermore The Cultural Intelligence Difference, p. 26) David Livermore has been a pioneer in teaching and testing what is called “CQ” or Cultural Intelligence, “a person’s capability to function effectively in situations characterized by cultural diversity.” Livermore has broken down CQ into four key parts. First comes understanding cross-cultural issues and differences. Then comes awareness as we interact cross-culturally. Then comes our interest and motivation to adapt. Finally, CQ refers to the extent to which we appropriately change our verbal and nonverbal actions when we interact cross-culturally. (Livermore, Cultural Intelligence: Improving Your CQ to Engage Our Multicultural World, pp. 47-48.) This is a learning process that challenges what we may have assumed to be “common sense,” that requires commitment and hard work, and that transforms understandings of the world in profound ways. Not everyone is up to such a challenge.
For me, the study of CQ has opened up a whole new way of understanding the world around me. You have probably heard me say before that we cannot separate religion from culture, and my reading of CQ research has supported that idea. Religion is a part of our mental programming as a part of our culture.
No, no, no, my radical individualist Unitarian Universalist friends may cry out! “We are different.” I look at it this way. Our American Culture is a generic biblical culture, which has in it many sub cultures, including, way out on the fringe, us Unitarian Universalists. Other American sub cultures exist, including old and young, rich and poor, straight and gay, republican and democrat, fundamentalist and liberal, and so on, but way down deep, we are culturally Americans, joined together in ways we seldom recognize or understand. We need to boost our CQ, starting right here, at home.
If you have taken the time to read this presentation, I hope you might want to read more about this fascinating topic, so I include this list of works I have found helpful. Corrections and suggestions are always welcome.
Hofstede, Geert H.; Hofstede, Gert Jan; & Minkov, Michael
(2010), Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, 3rd ed. McGraw Hill.
(2009), Cultural Intelligence: Improving Your CQ to Engage Our Multicultural World. Baker Publishing Group.
Hofstede, Gert Jan; Pedersen, Paul B.; & Hofstede Geert
(2002), Exploring Culture: Exercises, Stories and Synthetic Cultures. Intercultural Press.
Lewis, Richard D.
(2006). When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures. Third Edition. Nicolas Brealey Publishing.
(2013), Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever Your Are. A 24 Lecture Course on DVD with accompanying Course Guidebook. The Great Courses.
(2011), The Cultural Intelligence Difference. American Management Association.
(2013), Expand Your Borders: Discover 10 Cultural Clusters. Cultural Intelligence Center.
Livermore, David A.
(2006), Serving With Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence. Baker Publishing Group.
(2004), Cultural Intelligence. Intercultural Press.
(2010), Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche. Free Press
Let’s begin today by going back to the year 1987. I realize that if you happen to be considerably younger than I am, that may be before you were born, a full generation ago. Just twenty-five years ago, a gallon of gas cost 89 cents; a dozen eggs went for 65 cents, and a US postage stamp was 24 cents. Ronald Reagan was approaching the end of his time as our President, and Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Significantly, the disease HIV AIDS, which had taken hold in that decade, had become a death sentence for large numbers of people, mostly gay men. To a great extent, our government, our churches, our people were in denial, perhaps thinking that if we didn’t acknowledge this disease, it would go away. It was, after all, a “gay plague,” and mainstream America was then unable or unwilling to affirm the presence or the significance of gay citizens. In February, 1987, the World Health Organization had been notified of 43,880 cases of AIDS in 91 countries. No one knows how many cases went unreported. The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. C. Everett Koop, had advocated for AIDS awareness and use of condoms, but it seemed the public was not paying attention.
In January 1987, I was serving on the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst, in Williamsville in Western New York. Our minister then, The Rev. Carl Thitchener, had shared with the board that a colleague, one of his classmates from seminary, had been diagnosed with HIV. At that time, even mentioning such a diagnosis was a kind of taboo, as society judged harshly anything related to what it called the “homosexual lifestyle.” Some Americans considered AIDS to be God’s punishment for being gay.
I was especially concerned as the minister in question was The Rev. Mark Mosher DeWolfe, who was serving a UU congregation in Mississaugua, Canada–which was then a part of our St. Lawrence District. I had worked very closely with Mark in our district’s Eastern Great Lakes Leadership School, EAGLES, over a period of four years from 1982-1985, when we first both had been students and then he was staff and I chaired the committee. Mark and I had been roommates during this program. He was the first openly gay man I had ever known, and, though he was an extrovert and I am an introvert, we became good friends. He was a young UU minister; I was an older layperson. He was gay; I was—married with kids–not knowing then where my life would lead.
So, yes, I was especially pleased when Rev. Thitchener, whom we always called Carl, informed the Board of Trustees late in January that he had chosen as a sermon title, “The Condom Conundrum.” His intention was to speak out on the seriousness of AIDS. To underscore the significance of his message, he planned to distribute condoms as a part of the worship service. As we Unitarian Universalists exercise freedom of the pulpit, Carl neither asked for nor was given formal approval. However, both the church board and worship committee had been informed of what was planned, and these groups engaged in informal dialogue that turned out to be supportive.
The sermon topic was announced in the monthly newsletter, and members of the congregation were anticipating the usual stimulating and relevant service.
Unexpectedly, on the evening of Tuesday, February 3, 1987, the three major Buffalo TV stations carried as their lead story news that Carl would distribute condoms as a part of the service the following Sunday. Carl was interviewed on tape by two channels and live on the third. In all interviews, he stressed his intention to support the views expressed by the U.S. Surgeon General in the fight against AIDS.
In retrospect, it is difficult to imagine the shock and horror this news brought to much of the general public. Nowadays, we have the “N” word which we don’t say and the “F” word which we don’t say; then, the word “condom” was pretty much the “C” word which people either didn’t know or didn’t speak in polite society. The media had rules against advertising condoms.
The next day, The Buffalo News ran a story on the front page under the headline: “Minister to Distribute Condoms at Service.” On Thursday the condom story was the lead headline for local news: “Condom Plan Draws National Attention to Amherst Church.” On Friday, a large, very serious picture of Carl gazed from the front page under the headline: “Sensationalism Isn’t Minister’s Aim in Decision to Distribute Condoms.”
That Friday evening happened to be the time of the congregation’s Annual Meeting, at which Carl informed those present that what we may have thought was a local story had been picked up by the wire services and that accounts of what he planned were appearing worldwide. Having become an instant international media celebrity, he was receiving phone calls from around the world and participating in interviews from as far away as Northern Ireland.
Already visibly drained by the stress of the week, Carl said that all three of the local TV networks as well as national networks , wire services, and radio stations would be present Sunday to record the entire service and to collect “news.” I remember how supportive congregants were, and how concerns were expressed, not of distributing condoms, but of the logistics of handling such a crowd. Volunteers were solicited to direct traffic.
The media was having a field day with what it considered a newsworthy event. One newspaper headlined the UPI story: “Sinister minister providing condoms,” while Newsday blared: “Minister to Praise the Lord, Pass the Condoms.” Another Unitarian Universalist minister put out a press release entitled “Church is Not the Place for Condoms,” and other sources questioned the efficiency of condoms in controlling AIDS. Most articles noted the Surgeon General’s message that condoms could dramatically decrease the spread of AIDS.
Ironically, Carl said that the sermon had not been written yet. He quipped that, in focusing attention on AIDS, the media had done his job for him, and now he didn’t really need to do a sermon at all.
Sunday, February 8, 1987, was not a typical Sunday for the UU Church of Amherst. The Buffalo News provided a headline: “Church is Braced for Condom Commotion.” Next to the snowbanks along Main Street, around twenty pickets displayed signs opposing condom distribution, in words such as “WE PROTEST THIS ABOMINATION.” An endless line of cars filled every space in the parking lot. As we entered the building, church members had microphones thrust at us by media interviewers, and cameras buzzed all around. The standing room only crowd was reported by the media at anywhere from 250 to “more than 400” (Newsday)–clearly a full house.
Carl maintained the dignity and focus of a normal Unitarian Universalist worship service in spite of the whirring and clicking of cameras and the nonstop undertone of reporters. Before the sermon, a message from the Unitarian Universalist Association was read stating that it “took no position on the appropriateness” of the planned events, and calling on the media to lift bans on advertising condoms.
The sermon opened with an account of the appearance on TV of the U.S. Surgeon General that very morning. Carl then went on to review information on AIDS, the response of the community to the crisis, and the role of the church in dealing with important matters. After noting, “It is a religious practice of long standing that symbols are useful in helping us express that which is hard to express,” he stated that condoms are a symbol of those matters which people find difficulty talking about. Then, as cameras whirred and snapped, he and church ushers distributed condoms to those who wished to receive them. Having symbolically desensitized the congregation to what had been taboo, he then talked frankly about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. His conclusion was that the best way to avoid such diseases is abstinence, but if one chooses not to abstain, “our health experts recommend the use of a condom.” The congregation responded with a standing ovation.
The story of Sunday’s sermon and condom distribution was printed in over a thousand newspapers around the world and was featured on national TV news. Monday morning’s Buffalo News front page featured two pictures: one of Carl distributing condoms, and one of pickets outside. The headline read: “Minister’s Distribution of Condoms Cheered in Church, Jeered Outside.”
On Tuesday, the Buffalo News had an editorial, supporting the Carl’s goal of opening up conversation on AIDS. Also, there was a cartoon from Tom Toles showing a preacher leading his flock in saying “Condoms,” while pickets outside distributed earplugs.
Carl received letters and phone calls from friends and strangers around the world. Most people expressed support and thanks for his bold stance, while some disagreed, and there were enough stated or implied threats to justify concern. One woman asked, “‘Where oh where in the Bible does it mention condoms?” A seventy-six year old wrote, “‘A few more people in the pulpits like you–and I will get the urge to attend church.”
Predictably, Bishop Edward Head of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo issued a statement that “condoms are not the answer…..” and that sexual activity “belongs only within marriage.” Editorial writers around the country had a field day, and letters to the editor poured in, some for and some against, some cheering and some jeering.
National news that week included the revelation that at least twelve Catholic priests were known to have AIDS, and the announcement of the death of Liberace from AIDS related causes. A color picture of Carl distributing condoms appeared in a Newsweek story entitled “Kids and Contraceptives.” Saturday Night Live even satirically featured a body condom for complete protection.
I think it is fair to say the those of us in the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst were pleased and proud that our minister and our church had made a positive contribution that was being felt world wide in the fight against AIDS. In the course of all this hoopla, we hoped that people were learning about our faith, Unitarian Universalism, as well. We UU’s are people who face up to tough issues and try to find ways to deal with them. When needed and appropriate, we are willing to challenge the status quo.
Nine days after the condom sermon, was the first regularly scheduled meeting of the recently elected church Board of Trustees. At that time, Carl told the board that he had been informed by The Buffalo News that the following day it would publish negative information about him from his past. The News had found information related to issues that had been resolved in the past, issues that had no relation to his ministry or to his distributing condoms. Carl reviewed this information with the board, and, after some discussion, he left the meeting.
Wishing to show support in response to this sudden and unexpected turn of events, the board composed and passed the following resolution: ‘The Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst unanimously expresses its continuing confidence in the Rev. Carl Thitchener as our minister. We are also proud of and fully support his courageous efforts in the fight against the deadly disease AIDS.”
The following morning, The Buffalo News published its story. The front page story included the board statement of support as well as the names of all board members.
What was done that day by The Buffalo News was extremely hurtful to all of us in the congregation, but most especially to Carl and his family. I viewed it then and view it now as an extreme and unwarranted invasion of privacy that demonstrated the worst tactics of sensational journalism. It put us then, and puts us now, in a position that in order to tell the story of a major and significant accomplishment, the opening up of public discussion of HIV AIDS, we need to acknowledge that there were unforeseen consequences, demonstrating that no good deed goes unpunished. It turns out that when one becomes a public figure, recognized around the world, and when what that person does is controversial, then there is no such thing as privacy.
Letters to the Buffalo News revealed that many readers felt strongly that the paper had erred in presenting personal information on Carl so prominently. Comments from community religious leaders included regret of the impression “that Buffalo is a place of intolerance and preferred ignorance” and concern about “blatant character assassination.”
Murray B. Light, Buffalo News editor, defended his paper with the statement: ‘When an individual spreads a message, certainly the public at which that message is aimed needs to know about the person who delivers it.” (2/24/87) The following day, a letter in the news contained the following: “When one wants to assail another’s opinion he will often attack the person and not the opinion.” It appears to me that that sums up what had been done.
Through the days of reconciliation, Carl’s original message was getting out. A thousand copies of his “Condom Conundrum” sermon were printed and distributed to interested persons around the world. Just in saying this I am remembering what it was like before the internet–back in the days when we had to print and mail out information. Other religious leaders, both Unitarian Universalists and those of other faiths, were speaking and creating programs on previously taboo subjects: condoms and AIDS.
On March 24, Murray Light invited readers to react to the possibility of condom advertising in the Buffalo News. The response was small and noncontroversial. Who would have thought?
In mid April, Carl responded to a question that had been asked many times but not answered before: Would he have preached that sermon if he had known the consequences? He said that, considering all the possible benefits against all the real heartaches, yes, he would.
Later that month, President Reagan, reacted to the distribution of condoms in church to combat AIDS with the statement: “I was shocked when I read that that was happening.” The President continued: “I’ve since heard some things about that particular instance. As I understand, it was one clergyman in one church, and there had been other evidences of other expressions or procedures there that are not quite in keeping with most other religions.”
In May, the Ministerial Advisory Committee of the UU Church of Amherst submitted its final report to the church board on what had happened since February 3. They reported that the congregation was overwhelmingly supportive of Carl, that membership continued to increase, and that the finances of the church were healthy, thus providing some sense of closure for the church.
The summer 1987 issue of The Humanist Magazine printed the full text of “The Condom Conundrum” sermon, so that Carl’s words were shared by a new audience.
And then, the world moved on and what had been headline news faded into obscurity. I recently asked a number of friends, including Unitarian Universalists in Buffalo if they remembered the Condom Conundrum events of 1987, and the answer was no, they didn’t. Those of us who were present and involved remember them well, and we believe that sermon deserves to be remembered and celebrated. We think our minister and our church helped promote a major shift in the conversation about AIDS that saved lives, not just here, but around the world.
Not all Unitarian Universalists agree that Carl’s sermon was a good thing. The Rev. Marilyn Sewell preached a sermon on UU Theology in 2008 that has been widely distributed on the internet in which she says: “It is true that in the past when Unitarian Universalists have gotten in the national news, it has all too often been because of some P.R. blunder, like the minister who during the worst of the AIDS epidemic, passed out free condoms during the Sunday service and spoke on the subject, ‘The Condom Conundrum.’ This was not a bad idea–it’s just not what most churches in the nation were doing on Sunday morning.”
Fortunately as UU’s, we don’t have to agree. I respectfully disagree with the label “P.R. blunder.” I think it was a P.R. coup. What most churches were doing that Sunday morning was not saving lives. What our church was doing was. By whatever definition a person gives to the word “theology,” for me, our Unitarian Universalism was once again providing leadership in doing what needed to be done, deeds, not creeds.
Sadly, Carl’s sermon could not save his colleague. In 1987, HIV AIDS was still a death sentence. The Rev. Mark Mosher DeWolfe died in 1988, after a brief but distinguished and much beloved ministry.
Fortunately, modern medicine has developed treatments that allow people with HIV to live reasonably normal lives, Magic Johnson being the poster boy for success. Such treatments are not available to everyone around the world. According to UNAIDS statistics released in 2011 for the year 2010, the most recent I found on the internet, in that year there were 1.8 million deaths from AIDS, and 34 million people worldwide were living with AIDS. Although AIDS had once been thought of as a disease of gay men, at the end of 2010c, over half of the adult sufferers were women. When I was in the Peace Corps in Namibia in 2003, the estimate was that from 13 to 23% of the population was HIV positive, and the major industry in the village where I trained was the manufacture of coffins. Condoms were widely publicized and available, but perhaps not sufficiently utilized. And even today the Roman Catholic Church opposes condom use! Imagine. Nevertheless, when I googled “Condom Conundrum” this week, I found 477,000 results on the internet!
This being the 25th anniversary of the Condom Conundrum sermon, let us celebrate this significant event in our Unitarian Universalist history. We all learned so much about the power of the press, the importance of symbols, and the fact that the words and actions in our Unitarian Universalist church can make a difference in the world.
Amen and blessed be.
These past few days, newspapers, magazines, and our televisions have brought back to us visions of Twin Towers collapsing, of people running in terror, of fire fighters and police and ordinary citizens stepping in to help sift through the wreckage for human remains, and of the strength of the American people as we came together as a people.
I understand that this afternoon a special Memorial Service by the Albion Ministerium will be held here. I hope this magnificent church will be filled, and that speakers will, as the newsletter indicates, “move our hearts into a new place of the future.”
My words this morning are chosen more for a Unitarian Universalist gathering, from a Unitarian Universalist perspective. I say that recognizing that we UU’s do not think alike, but that we do share principles among ourselves, and, in many cases, with other faiths. Although our principles are not a creed as such–we do not say we “believe” in them– we do say we “affirm and promote,” and we take that very seriously. We understand “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” to apply to both men and women, rich and poor, gay and straight, of every race and ethnicity and belief system around the world. We struggle among ourselves to understand how best to practice and advocate justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
I discovered Unitarian Universalism in the mid 1970’s. It wasn’t only what UU’s then said or didn’t say about God or Jesus or the Bible that attracted me. It was also the realization that I was in a community, a congregation, a system that shared my values as they differed from some of the values then being advocated or enforced or ignored by our government. I learned that we Unitarian Universalists have a long history of being the loyal opposition, patriots who stand against the government when the government acts against our values, our principles.
9/11/01 stunned us all. It wasn’t that we hadn’t been attacked before. We had. Even the World Trade Center had been attacked. People had been killed, and propaganda had been circulated in the 90’s. We knew that groups had organized to attack America. However, it was beyond our imagination that anyone could plan and pull off what happened on that terrible morning. We were unprepared, not just in logistics of defense, but most especially in our sense of feeling secure. Such things didn’t happen in America.
And so it was that exactly ten years ago, it seemed, for a very brief time, that the people of our country could come together and stand as a people. We were Americans. We had the sympathy and support of most of the rest of the world. Although we had been terribly shocked and hurt, we were still the most powerful country in the world. We looked to our leaders and hoped they would act properly on our behalf.
When I last spoke here on June 16, my topic was Karen Armstrong’s book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Lifewhich was then to be the focus of our Ware Lecture at this year’s UUA General Assembly. I noted then that the twelfth, final, and most difficult step to a compassionate life is to “Love Your Enemies.” Armstrong reviews the history of this idea, going back to the Warring States period of ancient China, when leaders were told, “If we destroy our neighbors or ignore their interests, this will rebound hideously back on ourselves.” (p. 178) In the Daodejing, Laozi advocated an attitude of restraint and said:
The good leader in war is not warlike
The good fighter is not impetuous;
The best conqueror of the enemy is he who never takes the offensive.
The man who gets the most out of men is the one who treats them with humility.
(as quoted, p. 179)
Building on this ancient wisdom, Armstrong writes: “We can stop the vicious cycle of attack and counter-attack, strike and counterstrike that holds the world in thrall today only if we learn to appreciate the wisdom of restraint toward the enemy.” (p. 180)
And she reminds us of the teachings of Jesus, which, I hope are being read in every church across the land this fateful morning: “But I say this to you who are listening: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly. To the man who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek too; to the man who takes your cloak from you, do not refuse your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your property back from the man who robs you. Treat others as you would like them to treat you.” (as quoted –a paraphrase and condensation of Matthew 5: 39-44 and 7:12, p. 181)
The words are familiar. Treating others as we would like them to treat us. The Golden Rule. The central teaching of compassion of all religions. Which, at the time of 9/11/01 seemed to disappear. Armstrong reminds us “that in a threatening environment, the human brain becomes permanently organized for aggression.” (p. 186) We were threatened and we were afraid, and our leaders chose violent retribution.
Last June 22, an anti-Muslim extremist killed 77 people in Norway. This did not become an occasion for the government to declare war on extremists. Instead, the Norwegian Prime Minister said he thought that 6/22/11, the day of the shooting, would “be a very strong symbol of the Norwegian people’s wish to be united in our fight against violence and will be a symbol of how the nation can answer with love.” (“Norway begins burying…” Buffalo News, 6/30/11, p. 4) “Answer with love.” Compassion. Could we do that? No, we were told we would get the perpetrators at any cost and go to war against terrorism.
I don’t recall hearing or reading anything at the time dealing with why so many people would become terrorists and commit suicide to hurt America. We were shocked into awareness by the nineteen men who took down four airplanes. In the past ten years, hundreds of people–men, women, and even children–have strapped bombs on their bodies and blown themselves and the people around them to bits. How can such things happen? What would make a person do such things? Why would they do them to us?
The explanations I have heard really don’t answer these questions. We are told they were all vicious, crazy, brainwashed monsters–terrorists, and we have to destroy them and their kind totally. It was and perhaps still is unpatriotic to suggest that Americans consider the possibility that other people may have real grievances against us, that we have policies that have caused suffering, and that we are sometimes at fault. It was and perhaps still is unpatriotic to apply our UU principles to all people of the world, recognizing their inherent worth and dignity and advocating freedom and justice for all.
We here in America are so blessed to be living in a country where most people live reasonably comfortable lives. We have the basic needs to live and raise our families in peace and freedom. Our standard of living has, for many years, been way above much of the rest of the world, where people die of famine, drought, disease, and neglect as a normal part of life. I say this as a person who has lived in Ethiopia, India, and Namibia. We must know that our prosperity has often come at the expense of others less fortunate. They did not choose to be born into their situation any more than we chose to be born into ours. It is our fate to be what we are. It is very nearly impossible to imagine ourselves born into a different life. How would it be like to be born in the desert in a nomadic tribe ruled by men, following ancient traditions and a religion very different from our own? What if we had never heard anything but evil about America? What if we could gain riches and honor in this life and the promise of life in a better world simply by becoming a martyr and murdering Americans? Is it at all possible for us to walk in their shoes?
No, we didn’t deserve the horror of 9/11, but those foreign terrorists had tried to get our attention for years, and hadn’t really succeeded until that fateful day. They knew there would be massive retaliation. They were willing to take that risk.
A month after 9/11, Bill Moyers wrote: “Within two weeks of 9/11, the business press was telling of corporate directors rushing to give bargain-priced stock options to their top executives.” This was “a bonanza born of tragedy.” “During the last days of September, 511 top executives at 186 companies gobbled up stock-option grants–more than twice as many as in comparable periods in recent years.” “President Bush had already urged us to prove our patriotism by going shopping.” New York mayor Rudi Giuliani “would soon be hauling in a fortune exploiting his newfound celebrity to advise corporations on how to protect against terrorism.” (Bill Moyers, “After 9/11,” in Moyers on Democracy, Doubleday, 2008, pp. 219-20)
A lot of Americans made a lot of money out of this tragedy. And that was just the beginning. We went to war in Afghanistan with the objective of finding and destroying those who were responsible for the attack. Our government began an intensive “war on terror” which involved defending our “homeland,” and chipping away at freedom and democracy as we had known it in the name of homeland security.
Somewhere along the way, the Bush/Chaney, Rumsfeld leadership, decided to invade Iraq. Although it was implied and many Americans seemed to believe that this had something to do with 9/11, it didn’t. It was another war, unrelated, in another place, based, supposedly on “faulty intelligence,” a war for which we were completely unprepared. We were given the impression that we would be welcomed as liberators, when, in fact, we were invaders and occupiers of a country that lapsed into civil war and resistance against us.
History is now being written and rewritten in the form of memoirs as our former leaders attempt to justify and glorify their accomplishments. Rumsfeld’s memoir came first, cast blame on everyone but Rumsfeld, and was trashed by the critics. Having emerged from the secrecy that so dominated their times in office, Bush and Chaney now have dueling recollections of what actually occurred. Reviewing George W. Bush’s book promotion, Ralph Nader writes: “….he was asked about anything he would have done had he known then what he knew now–especially regarding Iraq and its encircled dictator. Well, he deplored receiving ‘false intelligence’ about Saddam Hussain having weapons of mass destruction which was one of several false claims he fed the American people before invading Iraq in 2003. But he has no regrets saying that ‘the world was undoubtedly safer with Saddam gone.’”
Nader continues: “But was it safer for over a million Iraqis who lost their lives due to the invasion, over 4 million refugees, 4500 American soldiers lost, 1100 amputees, tens of thousands injured, sick and tens of thousands more GIs coming back with trauma to lost jobs, broken families, and permanent damage to their health.
“Was it worth a trillion dollars to blow apart the country of Iraq and incur many more enemies? Was it worth starting a war paid for by a massive debt handed to our children so that George W. and Dick Chaney could give themselves and their rich buddies a massive tax cut?” (“Bush at large,” in The Progressive Populist, 12/15/10, p. 19)
More recently, Dick Chaney has expressed his complete lack of regret for advocating–and, in his version, taking much credit for–the Iraq war. It is terrifying to me to think that this man, with all his distrust of anyone different from himself and his paranoia of a world out to get us, was a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Through all those troubled years, our country depended on a voluntary military. With our long tradition of military families and extraordinary feats of heroism in fighting for our country, many young, loyal, patriotic Americans have volunteered, trusting that our leaders were doing what was right, and that our country needed their service to keep it safe. This, to me is the most heartbreaking part of our wars. Another generation has been sent off to fight in wars that should not have happened at all, or that were terribly mismanaged from the start.
This has been brought home again and again as our local newspaper features another dead hero, a young person blown to bits by a roadside bomb or cut down in a fire fight. I read of these men and women, and weep for all that we have lost in these terrible times. And when I hear of the extraordinary deeds carried out both on and off the field of battle, I am in awe of the strength and commitment and patriotism that so many people have demonstrated again and again in doing what they think is right. So many have persevered under the most difficult circumstances, fighting a war against shadows, where it seems unlikely that any clear, lasting changes in foreign cultures will occur.
For a while, our many American casualties were brought home secretly by a government that didn’t want us to see their coffins on the evening news. More recently, in a major reversal, we have developed community rituals of lining the streets with people holding flags to honor our dead heroes, and of accompanying their bodies with the Patriot Guard Riders on motorcycles, many of whom are Vietnam veterans who want to be sure that those who fall in battle today are properly honored as they were not.
Through it all, we have not had a major attack on America since 9/11/01. We Americans clearly disagree on the price we have paid for our security. In an editorial yesterday in The Buffalo News, Charles Krauthammer writes of a “great achievement of the decade…. the defensive anti-terror apparatus hastily constructed from scratch after 9/ll by President George W. Bush and then continued by President Obama. Continued why? Because it worked. It kept us safe–the warrantless wiretaps, the Patriot Act, extraordinary rendition, preventive detention and, yes, Guantanamo.” (“There was no 9/11 overreaction,” p. A9) A very different opinion was published, in all places, in Smithsonian this September, and I quote: “…our civil liberties have been eroded and our concern for individual rights–in particular, the rights of those we deem alien–has been coarsened by the steps our government has felt impelled to take to protect us from lurking threats: using new technology to sort and listen to phone calls by the millions without judicial warrants; rounding up and deporting Muslim immigrants by the thousands when there was anything dubious about their status; resorting to humiliation, physical stress and other ‘enhanced’ methods of interrogation, sometimes amounting to torture, in cases of supposedly ‘high-value’ terrorism suspects; making new claims for the authority of the executive branch to wage war in secrecy (including the breathtaking claim that our president had the constitutional authority to imprison indefinitely, without trial, any person on the planet he deemed an ‘unlawful enemy combatant’). “What 9/11 Wrought” by Joseph Lelyveld, pp. 61-2)
Speaking of 9/11 just a month after the tragic day, Bill Moyers wrote, “We will never forget it. In one sense, this is what terrorists intend. Terrorists don’t want to own our land, wealth, monuments, buildings, fields, or streams. They’re not after tangible property. Sure, they aim to annihilate the targets they strike. But their real goal is to get inside our heads, our psyche, and to deprive us–the survivors–of peace of mind, of trust, of faith, to prevent us from believing again in a world of mercy, justice, and love, or working to bring that better world to pass.
“That is their real target, to turn our imaginations into private Afghanistans, where they can rule by fear. Once they possess us, they are hard to exorcise.” (Ibid., pp. 221-222)
My sense is that for much of the decade after 9/11, we Americans were ruled by fear. Some of us wonder how that president got reelected, and one strong theory is that he had instilled enough fear of the consequences should someone else be elected. As Freedom of information laws are invoked, as Wikki leaks reveals secret documents, as individuals attempt to bring to light the dark secrets of the past ten years, we learn more each day of actions that violated our UU principles, which happen to be our country’s principles such as “with liberty and justice for all.” We know that we must never let up our guard. We Unitarian Universalists know we must continue being the loyal opposition, the Patriots With Principles, as we have been for so many years.
The Reverend Peter Morales, President of our Unitarian Universalist Association, in a letter dated September, 2011, wrote: “With your support of the UUA, we will make sure progressive moral values and our principles stand in stark contrast to those who would use fear and power to trample the rights and freedoms of others.”
He continues, “Every day our federal government implements laws and policies that condone or perpetuate injustice. And every day that we fail to stop this dehumanization we put our own humanity at risk.
“We have to remember that our laws are founded on our sense of what is moral. And our sense of what is moral is ultimately founded on our religious and spiritual values.
“Good and thoughtful people may disagree about the particulars of public policy. But none of us is free to condone brutality, humiliation, or policies that cause thousands of innocent people to die. Our religion compels us to take a stand.” End of quote.
Peter is speaking today after being arrested for an act of nonviolent civil disobedience against anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona. He “was convicted of misdemeanor charges related to his act of peaceful civil disobedience,”… “ and received a sentence of one day in jail, with credit for the one day already served. “ (UUA release) Peter writes: “…I am not seeking justice for myself. I am seeking justice for anyone who faces oppression and inequality on a systemic level.”
In yesterday’s Buffalo News, Eugene Robinson wrote: “It’s hard to overstate the extent to which the 9/11 attacks magnified the nation’s anxieties–not just about terrorism, but more generally about the future. Perpetual war produces a state of mind in which differences of opinion become questions of patriotism, adversaries become enemies, and ideological territory must be defended inch by inch.” (“Recognize that it’s over,” P.A9) Robinson’s main point: “We’re still in Afghanistan, we’re still in Iraq, and we’re still paying a terrible price for refusing to accept the obvious fact that we’ve already won the war that 9/11 compelled us to fight.”
It is time to move on, out of the fearful decade we have just finished, and into a time of compassionate advocacy for all peoples of the world.
The Rev. John Rex
April 10, 2011
In Garrison Keillor’s much beloved fictional town of Lake Wobegon, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” We laugh at the absurd but gentle humor of such a statement, but at the same time, way down deep, we realize that most likely we share a human tendency to think of ourselves as better than others. We tend to think of ourselves and the groups with which we identify as being exceptional. It is human nature to do that. After all, where we live is the “center of the earth.”
(Just a reminder that “Keillor identifies the original founders of what became Lake Wobegon as New England Unitarian missionaries, at least one of whom came to convert the Native American Ojibwe Indians through interpretive dance.” [from Wikopedia])
Simply put, the word “ exceptional” means not ordinary or average, and is most often understood as being better than ordinary or above average. It’s easy to see how families, tribes, religions, cultures and countries have maintained their sense of identity and flourished through the ages with the self understanding that they are exceptional. Any study of history will reveal that people of Ancient Greece or Rome or China had a strong sense of their exceptional status that set them apart from the barbarians of the rest of the world. And, yes, those barbarians most likely had their own sense of their exceptional identity as well.
I think it is fair to say that all religions consider themselves exceptional. Most ancient religions involved gods and goddesses of one sort or another that ruled over a particular group of people and were territorial and did not move outside of a specific area.
The Jewish Bible, which we may know as the Old Testament, tells of an evolving understanding of the powers of the universe centered on one God, who commands and enters into a covenant with a particular group of people. This God claims dominance over all people, but he-or she- focuses attention on one particular family, the family of a man named Jacob, who changes his name to Israel, and whose twelve sons begat the offspring that form the twelve tribes that migrated to the land that is named Israel. Most of us know at least some of these stories as we have grown up in a culture dominated by biblical religious stories and traditions.
Two points I would like to make about this Jewish part of our heritage. First, it is loaded with exceptionalism: that of God’s chosen people. Second, for the most part, it has not been a missionary event. People were born Jews, and conversion to Judaism has not been a major effort in history.
The rise of Christianity is a very different story. Some people forget that Jesus was a Jew. His preaching was directed at a radical revisioning of his Jewish faith, and he attracted many Jewish followers. After Jesus was crucified, so the story goes, a Jew named Saul had a mystical experience through which he was changed into the advocate of a new religion built around the mystery of Jesus, now the Christ risen from the dead, and now become a God figure. Saul changed his name to Paul, and took on the lifelong task of converting as much of the world as he could reach to his new religion of Christianity.
The spread of Christianity, first within and then beyond the Roman Empire is an amazing story, full of persecutions, disagreements, heresies, schisms, political interventions, wars, and ultimately the creation of Christian empires, both eastern and western, that dominate the history of the Western world. Although most of us know very little of this history, it is our history, and it has set firmly in place certain ideas that have dominated the development of our culture, most especially the idea of exceptionalism.
Historically, the Christian church has proclaimed its exceptional status in the world, claiming to be the one true faith (or, more accurately, each of its various divisions claiming to be the one true faith), and making every effort to convert those who don’t agree and to destroy those peoples and religions that disagree. Even those of us not versed in history have heard of the Crusades against Islam–and sometimes against disagreeing Christians–of the Inquisition, and of the attempt to destroy completely all evidence of indigenous religions as Christianity was spread by conquests in both the old and new worlds.
From its beginning, Islam also was a religion spread by conquest, and there is a long history of conflict between Islam and Christianity. However, two issues seem especially important to me: first, that historically Islam has a much better record of tolerance of people with different religions, and second, that our heritage before and during the conquest of the New World is largely Christian–and much less tolerant.
According to the Gale Encyclopedia of US Foreign Policy, “The idea of America as an exceptional entity dates back to colonial times. Its roots can be found in the thought of Puritan settlers who regarded the North American continent as a promised land where a new Canaan could be built as a model for the rest of the world. The earliest expression of this belief that continues to live on in American public memory comes from John Winthrop, a Puritan leader and first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Winthrop delivered a lay sermon aboard the Arabella, during its passage to New England in 1630, in which he declared that his fellow settlers ‘must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are upon us.‘ Winthrop’s words were circulated in manuscript form and have since become one of the main formative texts of American self-identity and meaning. Inherent in this notion of the city on a hill is the belief that the American colonists, and those who have followed them, were uniquely blessed by God to pursue His work on Earth and to establish a society that would provide this beacon for the betterment of all humankind.” (See Answers.com: exceptionalism)
Our understanding of “unique blessings” has led through our history to the development of an ideology that holds that “the United States is an extraordinary nation with a special role to play in human history; a nation that is not only unique but also superior.” (Ibid.) In his Farewell Address in 1796, George Washington warned against “permanent alliances,” while in his First Inaugural Address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson advised that Americans should avoid “entangling alliances.” Our foreign policy thus was established early on as one largely of unilateralism and isolationism. President James Monroe took it one step further by setting forth what is known as the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which declared the Western Hemisphere closed to European colonization. America’s benevolence was surely tested in the Mexican War in 1846, when the annexation of Mexican territory was considered by most Americans to be our “manifest destiny.” Again quoting, “The idea of manifest destiny is one of the clearest expressions of the belief in the exceptional nature of the United States. Territorial expansion was justified by Americans because they believed theirs was a special nation chosen by Providence to spread its virtues far and wide.” (Ibid.) Supposedly, our objective in Mexico was not to subjugate Mexicans, but to help them gain their freedom and rights and thus to progress humankind–while we were annexing the territory of our whole southwest.
When the United States ran out of lands to overcome on our continent, we entered into the Spanish-American War in 1898, as, in the opinion of many, “God’s emissary,” to secure freedom and democracy for the peoples of Cuba and other Spanish colonies, and also, I should note, to expand the American empire overseas.
America stayed out of World War I until 1917, when President Wilson decided it was up to us “to make the world safe for democracy.” Wilson had a vision of an international organization, the League of Nations, “committed to maintaining peace through arbitration of conflict and mutual respect of the independence and territorial integrity of all member states,” (Ibid.) but that was rejected by the isolationists in the U.S. Senate who believed that the U.S. should not be under obligation to any other nation.
Isolationists kept America out of World War II for over two years while German and Japanese troops were devastating much of Europe and Asia, but when Pearl Harbor was bombed and we finally entered the war, President Roosevelt declared that our victory would be one of the four freedoms of speech, religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear “everywhere in the world.” In his fourth inaugural address, Roosevelt claimed that God “has given to our country a faith which has become the hope of all peoples in an anguished world.”
President Truman put forth the Truman Doctrine, stating essentially that it is the duty of the United States to protect the rights of free, democratic nations around the world. President Kennedy pledged that the United States would do anything around the world “to assure the survival and success of liberty.” President Reagan promoted an even greater belief in American exceptionalism, describing the United States as “a land of hope, a light unto nations, a shining city on a hill,” which brings us back, of course to 1630 and identifies America as a New Jerusalem.
I remember learning about many of these presidents and their policies in school, but I don’t remember ever hearing about this thing called American exceptionalism, which has guided our relations with the rest of the world for over two hundred years. I was not aware of the power and extent of this line of thinking, which has set us apart from the rest of the world to the extent that in international affairs today, the word “exceptionalism,” is most often paired with the word “American.” You don’t hear today of British exceptionalism or Russian exceptionalism or Chinese exceptionalism. We only speak of American exceptionalism, which one source identifies as “the undeterred dogma of the United States,” and another source refers to as “America’s glorified historiography,” which has allowed us “to maneuver outside the rules or laws that govern the rest of the world.” (Internet source: “Keyword: Exceptionalism”)
My interest in the subject was spurred on by a column by Kathleen Parker that appeared in the Buffalo News on February 1 entitled “That ‘exceptional’ thing.” (p. A7) Parker notes that President Obama, while saying many exceptional things about our nation in his State of the Union address, failed to use the word “exceptional.” She says, “The exceptional issue may be political, but it isn’t only that. The idea lies smack at the heart of how Americans view themselves, and the role of government in their lives and in the broader world.”
My sense is that President Obama is intentionally avoiding a word that connects with so much historical baggage. The Vietnam War, which we lost, represents perhaps the ultimate failure of our exceptionalist foreign policies, but that is just a low point in a history full of serious exceptionalist blunders. If we know about the harm that our exceptionalist/ self righteous policies have brought about, then we should reconsider how we view ourselves and come up with a new self image. If, on the other hand, we don’t know about our history and stick with traditional exceptionalist dogma, then we are doomed to repeat previous mistakes and suffer the consequences.
In her column, Parker points out that “On the right, the word ‘exceptional’–or ‘exceptionalism’–lately has become a litmus test for patriotism. It’s the new flag lapel pin, the one-word pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution. To many on the left, it has become the birther code for ‘he’s not one of us.’”
It appears that exceptionalism has been a part of our American self image since before we were a nation. Again and again in our history, appeals to American exceptionalism have won support of public opinion and justified–or attempted to justify–our actions around the world. When our country seems threatened, as was the case during the early years of the Cold War against the communist menace, we fall back on our exceptional relationship with God, as was done when “In God we trust,” was mandated to be on all our money in 1955, and “under God” was officially added to the Pledge to the Flag in 1954. This is clearly a religious as well as a political kind of exceptionalism, growing out of a very ancient understanding of Christians that they are exceptional. We Americans have the blessing of God and the right form of democracy, and we don’t hesitate to use whatever power we have to change others to our correct way of believing and of governing.
It appears that a lot of Americans are satisfied with our exceptional status quo. Our former president said with a straight face that we could almost unilaterally invade and occupy Iraq causing massive destruction and loss of life, an action based on faulty intelligence, and that we could attempt to change their established culture to be more like ours. Yes, this cost I don’t know how many billions of American dollars and many thousands of American and Iraqi lives. But, in the end, that president boasted that we “got” Saddam Hussein, and the world is better off. To me, that whole sequence is bizarre, and the “American people,” whoever we may be, ought to be holding our leaders to a higher standard.
It appears to me that our current president has made a great effort to have the United States rejoin the international community after too many years of going it alone. His efforts to collaborate with many foreign leaders, to work closely with the United Nations and NATO, and to respect foreign customs and cultures are significant changes in the way we Americans do business in the world. However, it is clear that President Obama must pay attention to the demands of American exceptionalism as he steers the ship of state between the abysmal ignorance of history and of world cultures held by so many of the American people and the political need to do what the majority of voters dictate, no matter how wrong or harmful or downright stupid it may be. And of course he must end every major speech with “God bless America,” to reassure us all that in God’s eyes, America is exceptional.
Last month I spoke here about the Peace Corps. Yes, I firmly believe that the Peace Corps is one of the best things to happen in our country. I also believe that it is one of the most misunderstood. Going back to President Kennedy’s inaugural address, we heard: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Inspiring, yes. Crowd pleasing, absolutely. Abstract, surely. Exceptionalist, right on. We Americans will march right in to “assure the survival and success of liberty.”
And then came the Peace Corps, not exactly marching, but showing up, and not quite assuring liberty, but aiding survival. I think most Americans have viewed the Peace Corps at the onset, and through its fifty year history, as an extension of our usual exceptionalist foreign policy, based on our tradition of being missionaries of our religious and political beliefs and practices in our relations with other lands. But somehow, it didn’t work out that way. Americans in the Peace Corps immersed themselves in distant cultures, and yes, both the Peace Corps volunteers and the people they worked with were changed, but not towards embracing American exceptionalism. Sometimes America didn’t look so good from the perspective of a person in another country, and Peace Corps volunteers learned to respect that perspective. I suspect that the fact that the Peace Corps has had only 200,000 volunteers in fifty years, a relatively small number, that the Peace Corps budget is always an issue, and that so many people don’t even know there still is a Peace Corps are all results of the fact that the Peace Corps has directly challenged American ideas of exceptionalism. For so many of us who have served in the Peace Corps, the message we bring home is not that we should be isolationists and act unilaterally, not that we should use our military power to force people to be like us, but that peace is an option, and that we have an obligation to change our self understanding, to appreciate, work with, and support other peoples, not just for our advantage, but for the advantage of all. That is a radical change from our long history of American exceptionalism. It threatens the beliefs of the very powerful religious and political right.
Finally, what I hope is a very strong voice against the great harm of exceptionalism is our faith, Unitarian Universalism. As we “affirm and promote: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” it seems to me that we are refuting most eloquently all that exceptionalism represents. We do not see ourselves as people chosen by God. We are not chosen people. We are choosing people, who carefully examine our options and make choices that are based on knowledge and experience, not on dogma or superstition.
So, are we UU’s exceptional? Yes, of course we are, but not in the manner of traditional American exceptionalism. We are patriots whose highest values relate to learning, logical thinking, and loving communities. We reject the arrogance and hubris of people and groups who think that God chose them to build a city on a hill or that simply by being Americans they are better than everyone else in the world. But, of course, all our children are above average, nevertheless. So it goes.
(Note to readers of this document: As a relative novice at using the internet to gather source materials, I have yet to learn how to properly identify these items when quoted. I have done my best, but I recognize that a better accounting is needed. JR)
The Rev. John Rex
March 13, 2011
Most likely you have hard by now that March 1 was the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the Peace Corps. Now, after fifty years, some people are surprised to hear that there still is a Peace Corps.
President Kennedy’s inaugural speech on January 21, 1961, echoes in our ears today: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”…. “And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”
Many of my generation were inspired, energized by our new, young President who seemed to speak to us and for us. Weeks later, on March 1, 1961, President Kennedy put words into action when he signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps and appointed his brother-in-law, the brilliant Sargent Shriver to head up this new and experimental agency.
In that first year, just 600 volunteers were sent to six countries, amidst huge amounts of publicity. The media were full of photos and stories of mostly young men with crew cuts wearing white shirts and ties, and mostly young women wearing modest skirts and tops heading off to save the world. In a very short time, the Peace Corps took a place besides apple pie and motherhood as representing the best that America had to offer. At the same time, it received its share of ridicule, as some derided it as a kiddie corps or a den of draft dodgers.
As I was finishing college in the spring of 1962, I applied for the Peace Corps. Later, when I received a telegram informing me that I would train to teach school in Ethiopia, I did what so many of us admit to having done: I found an atlas to locate Ethiopia.
Our Ethiopia group of over three hundred mostly young people trained at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in the hot summer of 1962. Other large groups were training for service in other countries elsewhere in and around D.C. that summer as the Peace Corps moved into a phase of massive growth–and, I might add, administratively, of massive chaos–which most of us remember with many tales to tell, like the last minute effort to have everyone’s wisdom teeth removed at the Georgetown Dental School, or the delays of security clearances that put many prospective volunteers in limbo for weeks and months when they could not go overseas.
Sargent Shriver spoke to us in training, and we were welcomed to the Rose Garden of the White House where President Kennedy inspired us all once again, this time in person, before we were sent off to be the first group to go to Ethiopia. There we were invited to visit His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie at the Imperial Palace. Those were heady, idealistic years for me as I struggled with the challenges of becoming fully adult and helping to make the world a better place.
After days of orientation in Addis Ababa, our large group was divided up and sent to the places where we would work for the next two years. Most of us were teachers, so we went where there were schools. I ended up in Debre Berhan, a town of about 10,000 people, just eighty miles north east of Addis Ababa at an altitude of 9,500 feet. I was with eleven other PCV’s –Peace Corps Volunteers– six single guys, four single girls, and one married couple, all of us in our twenties– who would be teaching in two different schools.
Life took on a routine there, as we adjusted to the cool climate and formed households, hired servants to help with housekeeping chores, and threw ourselves wholeheartedly into teaching school. None of us in that first group had learned much more than a few words of the local language, Amharic, in our training, and since the language of instruction was English, and our students were always there wanting to speak English, unlike later groups of PCV’s, most of us did not learn much more of local languages.
In a sense, nothing could have prepared us in our brief time of training for the enormous differences between Ethiopian and American cultures. We started out knowing nothing–really, what do most Americans know today of thousands of years of rich Ethiopian history or of the extraordinary tribal and religious heritage of these peoples? Again and again in training, “experts,” those who had been in Ethiopia, spoke of how beautiful the country was and avoided saying anything that might be interpreted as critical, so, in fact, we were pretty much on our own to learn the hard way.
We worked very hard, and sometimes we were massively frustrated because it became clear that others didn’t think as we did or value what we Americans value. High school students expected the teacher to dictate notes they could memorize and then recite without question–or understanding. On one occasion, when I was assigned to proctor a final examination, the twelfth grade students looked at the questions and started grumbling. I called in their teacher, and he proceeded to tell them that the correct response began with–and he quoted opening words from the notes he had dictated, at which point most of the students began writing answers, all exactly alike, from the notes they had memorized. We Americans wanted questions, discussion, creative thinking, none of which were part of the system we found in place.
My school in Debre Berhan was the site of the first student strike against Peace Corps teachers. The students I was teaching didn’t strike against me, but higher grades struck against my friends, refusing to enter their classrooms with serious accusations and demands being bantered about, and it was a tense and awkward time for us all. Bill Moyers, then working for the Peace Corps, came to Ethiopia as a trouble shooter to deal with that and some other issues. I remember chatting with him–what I call my Bill Moyers interview.
On the evening of November 22, 1963, I was preparing lessons on my portable typewriter (remember typewriters) by candle light as electricity had gone out, when another volunteer came to the door, gripping a flashlight, with tears in her eyes. She told me that President Kennedy had been shot. We turned on my battery operated shortwave radio, and listened as history was made so far away. For the next few days, our little group gathered together and shared bits of information as they came in, of the murder of the accused assassin, of the country in mourning, and of the state funeral. We represented America in receiving condolences from grieving Ethiopians.
There were good times too, as we rode our horses and hiked in the magnificent countryside in our spare time, and as we were able to connect more closely with Ethiopian colleagues, students, and friends. Little by little we found ourselves becoming immersed in a culture, in a way of being in the world, that was unique and unlike anything that we had known in America. Little by little we learned to take small steps to be helpful and creative where we could, and to work with the system that was in place. Little by little we gained understanding of the importance of being present and of doing the work needed to establish right relationship.
In 1964, it was time for me to return home, to face up to the culture shock that returned PCV’s experience coming back to the excessive affluence and arrogance that so often characterize American culture. I had changed. According to one distinguished volunteer from those early days: “From the beginning, the Peace Corps was not simply about an international service experience. Rather the Peace Corps was essentially about having Americans work alongside the peoples of other countries knowing that experience would change those we worked with and those who participated. And then, those changed volunteers would return home and become relentless advocates for an entirely different way for our country to engage with the world.” (Kevin F.F. Quigley, “Peace Corps Service + Advocacy,” in WorldView, Winter, 2010, p. 6)
Returning home from Ethiopia, I was still a citizen of the USA who recognized the unique and special qualities of my country of birth. But I had lived in another country with a completely different culture, and, for better or for worse, I would always see the actions of my country in some ways as they might be seen by someone from what was then called a “third world” or developing culture. And sometimes the USA didn’t look so good.
One Peace Corps memory illustrates for me the huge gulf that existed between Americans then engaged in Ethiopia. As Debre Berhan is on the main road from Addis Ababa north to Asmara in Eritrea, which was then a part of Ethiopia, and as the USA had a major military base, Kagnew Station, in Asmara, it happened one day that an American military jeep was passing through Debre Berhan going north and broke down nearby. The three or four American soldiers, fully outfitted in heavy boots and camouflage fatigues, sought us out as the Americans in town and asked to spend the night in our modest chika/mud house. With our approval, they hauled their folding cots and government issue baggage to our living room and set up camp for the night. I will never forget the shock I felt at seeing machine guns and rifles in the house where I lived. While we PCV’s lived and traveled openly with no weapons at all, these men, in a strange sort of way, were obvious targets of the bandits or “shiftas”m roaming the countryside who would happily kill them simply to have their weapons.
After Ethiopia, Peace Corps experience was an ongoing part of my life, as I sought out other returned volunteers, married one of them, and engaged in various programs to “bring the message home,” to share what I had learned about the world with other Americans. When I made the decision to retire from active ministry in 2003, my next step was to join the Peace Corps once again, this time as a sixty-two year old man.
Not only had I changed, but the Peace Corps had changed, and I was encountering a totally new experience. Peace Corps training in 2003 and today is done in the country of service, so after two days of orientation in Philadelphia, our group of 46 trainees, mostly younger folks, were whisked off to Namibia for ten weeks of training as the 22nd Peace Corps group to enter Namibia since 1991, when what was then called South West Africa was finally able to break away from the control of South Africa. Although I had originally been told that I would once again be teaching, as training began I was assigned to a group of “community workers,” and to a small group being taught “khoekhoegowab,” the clicking language of the Kalahari Desert San people. We trainees alternated weeks together and weeks living in Namibian homes in distant towns. Half way through training, I was informed that the medical office had decreed that my planned posting, off on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, was too remote for a person of my age, so my whole program was changed to teaching, and my language training to Afrikaans. Somehow, I made it through, barely achieving minimal language competency with my phrases of Afrikaans, and I was sworn in once again as a Peace Corps Volunteer on January 9, 2004.
As a full fledged PCV once again, I was given the Namibian Volunteer Handbook which lists many rules and regulations telling what PCV’s must and must not do, including the requirement that each volunteer must remain at his or her post 24/7 and be within telephone contact at all times, either by cell phone or by a nearby public phone. Monthly allowances were made via local ATM’s. We drank water from the tap. In most places, internet access was available.
What a completely different world this was from Debre Berhan in 1964, where there were no computers, no ATM’s, and just one telephone that seldom worked. In my two full years in Ethiopia, I never once attempted to call my family in the USA. Our only contact was via snail mail, which took two weeks each way. In Namibia, we trainees and volunteers were instructed to call and reassure our families, and most of us maintained contact via e mail.
I was assigned to a school in Karibib, to teach English to 160 eighth, ninth, and tenth graders each day. As is now Peace Corps policy, I was the only PCV in Karibib, living alone in a house on the far side of what was called the “location,” that had been the segregated black community during the years of apartheid. After completing the first trimester of the school year, and after much careful discernment, I decided that this program was not working for me and that I should terminate my service early. Getting out of the Peace Corps today is much easier than getting in, and I was home in Western New York in May, 2004.
From all that I have heard, most Peace Corps Volunteers today have a much better experience than I did in Namibia. I have no regrets. If anything, I am inspired and encouraged by the many young and older Americans who are asking what they can do for their country today and following through with years of service. Since the Peace Corps was established in 1961, over 200,000 Americans have served in 139 countries. That’s actually a very small number, compared with the millions of Americans involved in the military industrial complex, but little by little, Peace Corps voices are being heard. President Obama has called for greater funding.
One thing is sure: that each person who serves in the Peace Corps has a unique and life-changing experience. There is a bond that exists among those who return to the USA, returned Peace Corps Volunteers or RPCV’s. We have done what we could to help make a better world, and, in doing so, our lives have been changed. We are challenged to bring the message home, to find ways to communicate with our fellow Americans, to promote a better understanding of other peoples of the world.
Today, nearly 100,000 American troops are engaged in Afghanistan in a war that has lasted almost ten years, that has cost thousands of lives–not counting the untold physical and mental injuries, and that has cost hundreds of billions of dollars. I suspect that most Americans don’t know that between 1962 and 1978, approximately 2,500 Americans served in the Peace Corps in Afghanistan, living in isolated villages, learning the languages of the country, and becoming immersed in the unique cultures that exist there–all, I might add, without weapons. We were there and developed important ties there. Then we left, and the Russians invaded, so we Americans supported those who opposed the Russians and provided arms to the group of freedom fighters that became the Taliban. After the Russians were finally driven out in a rout that eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we abandoned Afghanistan, and the Taliban took over. That is an oversimplified version of what occurred, but it tells the essential story.
Last Thanksgiving, when our returned Peace Corps Volunteer group in Buffalo gave a special dinner for refugees, I sat with three young men from Afghanistan, refugees who were waiting for paperwork to enter Canada. In response to some of my questions, they had some strong words about America. They told me that Afghanistan had driven out Alexander the Great, the Moguls, and the British, and the Russians, and would surely drive out the Americans. Their overwhelming dream was to rid Afghanistan of any occupying forces.
More recently this opinion was affirmed by my friend, Tony Agnello, who served in the Peace Corps in Afghanistan from 1972-75, and who serves actively as the head of Friends of Afghanistan, an organization of those returned PCV’s who served in Afghanistan. He continues to be active and well informed, and returned to Afghanistan in 2003 and in 2006 to implement and explore opportunities for student sponsored humanitarian aid and school construction projects. I asked Tony if any returned volunteers had been consulted before our invasion of Afghanistan, and he named one he thought had been, but said he knew of no others. Tony says his ongoing efforts to contact members of Congress have been ignored as “yesterday’s news.” And, most critical, in response to my question: “What do you think might be the ultimate outcome of the current US presence in Afghanistan,” Tony wrote: “Afghanistan is the ‘Graveyard of Empires.’” He says the people of Afghanistan, with their medieval tribal cultures, will fight to the death and eventually persevere, that they are eager to kill the infidel invader, or, if they are lucky, to become martyrs for the glory of Islam. He continues, and I quote: “Eventually we will tire of our task and leave, they will oust the central government and twenty years after the first American invader entered Afghanistan, it will fall again to the Taliban in whatever form it will have morphed into by then.”
Tony emphasizes that great harm could be done if our American troops “are precipitously withdrawn without a well planned exit strategy.” We Americans must not act without full awareness of the repercussions of our actions, both in going in, and in coming out.
Today there are five returned Peace Corps Volunteers serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. I close with a quotation from John Garamendi, who served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia from 1966-68, and who now represents California’s 10th Congressional District in the House of Representatives. Garamendi writes: “War or the Peace Corps way, what will be America’s choice? I am in Congress now adding my voice and vote to a small but growing group who refuse to fund a continuation of the Afghan war. I believe it better to pull our troops out and focus like a laser on the true terrorists and the causes of terrorism. We will spend over $120 billion this year on the Afghan war. What if we used that money for social, educational, health care and economic development in the developing world?” (WorldView, Winter 2010, p.24)
“What if…???” I think of this as bringing the message home, the Peace Corps legacy, the Peace Corps way, a way of peace.
The Reverend John Rex
June 10, 2007
Last Sunday was the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) Pride Parade and Celebration in Buffalo , a main event of Pride month, the month of June. I didn’t make it to the parade as I was off preaching in Jamestown , but I will be singing next weekend as a member of the Buffalo Gay Men’s Chorus in our big spring concert. If you happen not to be gay or if you are not in a city or college campus where such events occur, you may not be aware that this month is special. For over thirty years, Unitarian Universalist churches have taken the lead in promoting gay rights, acceptance, affirmation, and understanding. It has not been easy. We forget that not too long ago, our gay ministers either remained in the closet or were denied pulpits. We were as much a part of repressed American culture in such matters as anyone else, but we somehow managed to raise our awareness of injustice and to work towards justice.
This process was aided by the development of various curricula related to sexuality–back in the 70′s “About Your Sexuality,” which radically, in those days, recognized gay relationships as a legitimate expression of human sexuality, with explicit filmstrips. More recently, we have adopted “Our Whole Lives,” a much more comprehensive program. Our congregations have struggled with issues related to sexuality. Oh, I know it is politically correct to be open and accepting and affirming of everyone, but this is America , and our culture has imprinted beliefs and ideas that we may not be aware of, and we interact daily with others who do not share our liberal ideas.
The Unitarian Universalist Association has developed a program for all UU congregations entitled the Welcoming Congregation, which sets forth a lengthy, intense, and sometimes difficult process in which all people, straight and gay, are asked to become more aware of their deeply held beliefs related to sexuality, and to act on what they learn. Once members of a congregation have gone through that process, and there has been a congregational vote in affirmation of being recognized as a Welcoming Congregation, a brief description of how each action step was met is sent to the Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns in Boston, which then sends on a letter of congratulations and a poster proclaiming that they are a Welcoming Congregation.
Doing that, or not doing that, can be a big issue in a UU congregation. I remember attending a board meeting in one congregation that I served in which a board member requested permission to start the Welcoming Congregation program. The board discussed, debated, and delayed. The big argument was: “Everyone is welcome here. We are already a welcoming congregation. “After that meeting, one board member came to me, her minister, with concern. She was deeply troubled. She said, “We don’t want to become a gay congregation, do we?”
My understanding of that situation is that she really did not want to deal with the issue. She wanted—and let’s face it, many, perhaps most, people want—to maintain the status quo, which she felt was OK. I have to admit that I, as her minister, wanted to be able to affirm her as a person and to help her grow in her understanding, and that for me was very difficult.
That congregation of wonderful, liberal, open minded folks could have benefited from the Welcoming Congregation program–and, in my opinion, grown in their UU faith and identity, but some key members weren’t yet ready to do that. I have always wondered what this person imagined when she spoke of a “gay congregation.” Gay affirming, gay welcoming, gay understanding, are perhaps OK, but just plain “gay,” taps into some great uncharted depths of our psyche where hidden fears continue to exist–as if great crowds of gays would take over the congregation—and straights–well, use your imagination….
About ten percent of the people in the world are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. I hope it does not offend anyone if I use the word “gay” to include all these groups. The word most often used to name the irrational and persistent fear of anything related to gay identities is “homophobia,” literally a “fear of man,” and thus a sexist macho male fear of sexual attraction to the same gender or sex. Homophobia has come to mean much more than that, and now includes various aspects of oppression of gays.
But for me, another dynamic is even more insidious: heterosexism. That is the assumption that the heterosexual way is the right way, and that anything else is wrong. That is, having sexual or affectionate attractions to members of another gender or sex is good and desirable, but having sexual or affectionate attractions to members of the same sex is bad. Along with this is the assumption that, unless otherwise identified or outed, a person is heterosexual. (One of my favorite buttons reads, “How dare you assume I am heterosexual???)
Gay people live in two worlds; straight people don’t. Gay people have to learn to exist, to survive, in an oppressively dominant straight culture where even their own families might and often do reject them, and where much of what they need most in terms of support, affirmation, or plain old ordinary love, may be lacking. They must live in a country where discrimination based on sexual orientation is still legal in many places, shamefully so in the “Don’t ask; don’t tell,” stance of the military. Just this past week, all ten possible republican presidential candidates stated that they would not approve of having gays serve openly in the military. The current nominee for surgeon general happens to be both a doctor and a minister; in his latter role, he voted to expel a lesbian pastor from her pulpit; and he helped found a congregation that, according to gay rights activists, “believes homosexuality is a matter of choice and can be cured.” (“Gays criticize nominee for surgeon general, Buffalo News, 67/7/07, p. A5.) His rise under our current government is just another example of a narrow religious ideology triumphing over current scientific medical studies. No wonder so many gay people do all they can to stay in the closet, which may be a place of isolation, fear, and guilt.
Part of the problem is that there are so many people who think they know what is right for others, based on their particular world views and deeply held beliefs. However, our deeply held beliefs have nothing whatsoever to do with rational thought. That is OK, as long as the beliefs are benign, or as long as we don’t use them to justify hurtful behavior. But when the beliefs are toxic and affect others, then we have a problem. Unfortunately, even today there are churches and organizations that claim that gay people are immoral, depraved, sinful–you name it– and can and should be converted to what they believe is their “true heterosexuality.”
Recognizing that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality–not one word–and that the few various other biblical passages that mention same sex relations are badly in need of commentary, I doubt that an unbiased reading of the Bible would support such judgment of fellow humans. The specifics must be another sermon for another day. And, as much as I respect what the Bible says, I don’t think it can be or should be used to cancel out rational thought.
My life experience, my reading, my studies, my communities, have all given me a very strong and powerful message: sexual orientation cannot be changed. Being gay is normal for about 10 % of the population of every country in the world, regardless of how open or how repressive their respective cultures are towards gayness.
Being gay is not a life style. Being gay is a state of mind, a way of being in the world that relates to sexual and affectionate attraction. It is not a choice; it just happens. We don’t know exactly how or why it happens–nature or nurture or some combination–just that it does. If you are heterosexual, you are attracted to members of the opposite sex. Knowing that you are heterosexual does not tell me what you do. You may be celibate, or committed to one partner, or promiscuous, or kinky or whatever. The same goes for gay people: some are celibate either by choice or by life circumstances; some have life partners; some are promiscuous, and so on. Now just how that gets reduced to “The Homosexual Lifestyle,” I will never understand. Except that it is clearly an attempt on the part of those who don’t know to persuade themselves that they do know what they are not in a position to know and most likely never will.
Another misconception, I think with significant consequences, is the assumption that a person is either gay or straight. In fact, studies have shown that, given a scale from exclusively gay to exclusively straight, most people fall somewhere in between. Young people today are recognizing and declaring their sexual identities much earlier in life, some coming out as early as junior high school. One large contingent of last Sunday’s Buffalo parade was members of the Gay and Lesbian Youth Services of Buffalo, teenagers, carrying a rainbow flag, joyfully and publicly declaring who they are. We need to grow in our understanding of how best to affirm and support them.
Once a gay person comes out to him or herself, that person most likely is aware that she or he has been gay since birth. Human sexuality does not begin with adolescence; we all have sexual memories and experiences that go back to the womb. There is the possibility for growth and change, and it is possible that a person may evolve from straight to gay or vice versa during the course of a lifetime, but that seldom happens and is most likely to happen with a person who is towards the midrange of the gay-straight continuum. However, there is no evidence that such a change can be forced, either by tortuous reconditioning, as has been practiced in recent years in otherwise civilized societies, or by therapy or counseling.
he one primary issue being raised in all our 2007 GLBT Pride events is gay marriage. This is a huge issue that draws energy from great depths of cultural and religious beliefs, both those acknowledged and those hidden. It is not an easy issue, given the powerful forces manipulating the thinking and the votes of so many people.
I for one, as a minister, believe that no government should have any part in making decisions related to the sacred and holy state of matrimony. Yes, I have officiated at many marriages in Virginia , Florida , and New York , and, yes, I have been certified by those states to sign legal papers saying people were married in my presence. I think it is totally wrong for government to say who can and who cannot be married. I believe in the separation of church and state. In my opinion, the state has an obligation to provide the legal basis for civil unions for all couples of whatever gender, and should get out of the business of saying who can get married.
The matter is complicated by our long tradition of “legal” marriage, which is generally controlled separately by individual states. Not long ago, in my lifetime, some states did not permit marriage between people of different races. And now we have a President who advocates injustice in his discriminatory legislative proposals defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Such legislation denies the reality of life today in America . ”Same-gender couples live in 99.3% of all US counties.” All around us are same-gender couples, living out their lives in loving relationships with none of the federal or state benefits offered to married heterosexual couples. ”Marriage offers 1,138 Federal benefits and responsibilities, not including hundreds more offered by every state. Legal spouses have automatic rights. Married couples have financial and tax benefits.” The list goes on. The issues become more complicated when children are involved. Some statistics off the internet: “Same-gender couples are raising children in at least 96% of all US counties. Nearly one quarter of all same-gender couples are raising children. Nationwide, 34.3% of lesbian couples are raising children, and 22.3% of gay male couples are raising children (compared with 45.6% of married heterosexuals, and 43.1% of unmarried heterosexual couples….)” (Statistics taken from report of a recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, entitled “The Effects of Marriage, Civil Union, and Domestic Partnership Laws on the Health and Well-being of Children.”)
As long as governments control the sacred and holy rites of marriage, then, if justice is to prevail, there must be gay marriage. There are today huge pressures both for and against. Traditionalists, conservatives, fundamentalists, and, yes, some ordinary people who hold ordinary views are threatened by any change in the status quo, especially something that goes against their perception of what is right, their deeply held beliefs. In such matters, logic and reason and persuasion may not win out. We have more than our share of demagogues who appeal to passions and prejudices rather than reason, who like to whip up emotions to get people to act in particular ways. That’s where Unitarian Universalism can be a positive force. Here in this place, we can share our deepest feelings and ideas. We can disagree lovingly. We can agree and affirm our principles, and, together, we can do our best to right the many wrongs around us. Each of us can, in his or her unique way, contribute towards this justice-making community. It is my hope that people here will take every opportunity to support justice for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, including working for gay marriage.
As Unitarian Universalists, we are aware that we are a tiny minority, perhaps only 200,000 in a country that is well over 250,000,000. To some other religious groups, we are outsiders, heretics, weirdoes, who don’t conform to their idea of what is right. One way we respond is to gather together in communities of support, to speak our truths in sermons, discussions, and publications, and thus to create a world where we feel comfortable living out our lives.
One way we enhance the vision of our world is to name famous Unitarian Universalists throughout history. As I pointed out last month, we love “BIRFing,” basking in the reflected glory of our heroes: Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Dorthea Dix, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, John Haynes Holmes, Jane Adams, John Dewey, Adlai Stevenson, Whitney Young, Ray Bradbury, and so on. It is truly amazing how many Unitarian Universalists have used their exceptional gifts to bless the world.
Although gay people make up a minority, it is by no means as tiny a minority as Unitarian Universalists. Ten percent of our population is well over 25,000,000 gay people. That is more than ten times the number of Unitarian Universalists! Many of this gay population are hidden away, in the closet or passing for straight. But many are out and proud, in communities just about everywhere, including Buffalo –and I don’t know about Albion ….
As I said before, gay people live in two worlds while straight people do not. The gay world coexists, invisible to those who have no ‘gaydar’, but it is alive and well here today. We have gay newspapers. We have gay magazines, gay TV, gay bars, gay resorts, gay retirement homes–you name it and somewhere it is gay…. And gay people like BIRFing just as much as anyone else, so we have gay heroes, too many to name, but let me mention just a few: Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus, Michelangelo, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Alexander the Great, Peter the Great, and Frederick the Great (is that what made them great?), Hans Christian Anderson, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Dag Hammarskjold, Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, Charles Laughton, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Anthony Perkins, Elton John, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copeland, Thornton Wilder, Martina Navratilova, Ellen Degeneres, and how about Rosie O’Donell… and so on. Some were out during their lives; some were not. Most whom we know about distinguished themselves in some creative manner: as artists, writers, theologians, philosophers, musicians, and so on.
We know less of people like Barbara Jordan, who wasn’t ‘outed’ until after her death, and whose life had such an impact on the Watergate era. It is still unsafe for some needing public affirmation in their work to come out. I think times are changing. New York now has a governor who supports the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York State . Not so long ago, we might have thought that impossible. But, as we have learned so well, change is not easy, and anyone who attempts to change the system must expect sabotage in direct proportion to the success of the change. That surely happens in our quest for justice for all races; it happens in our pursuit of equal rights for women; and it happens in our struggle towards fairness for gays. May we all be up to the challenge?
Amen and blessed be.
RETURN TO INDEX
“A UU CHRISTMAS SERMON“
The Reverend John Rex
December 10, 2006
I put up my Christmas tree this past week. I bought this artificial tree when I was ministering to a congregation in Jacksonville , Florida in 1999. Since then, it has stood in six different homes, as well as a year in storage while I was in Namibia . That’s seven settings in eight years, and gives you some idea of my many moves. With all that moving around, one constant in my life has been that Christmas tree, bringing a bit of light during this dark month of December each year. Among my accumulated ornaments is a plastic Santa that hung on my family tree when I was a small child–the glass ornaments didn’t survive, and a whole collection of felt ornaments made by my mother who crafted them by hand to raise money for her church, the Episcopal Church, in which I was raised. Designed by an artist in her church, these are wonderful animals: an alligator with a Santa hat in its mouth, an ostrich swallowing a string of colored lights, a polar bear licking an ice cream cone, and so on. Back in the 60′s and early 70′s, they sold for $5 apiece–what I thought was a lot of money then–at the annual church Christmas bazaar, and my mom was pleased to raise hundreds of dollars for her church. Putting up my tree stirs up these memories for me, as, I am guessing, putting up a Christmas tree does for many people. It takes me back to a time when my mother and father and sister, all now long gone, were alive, when life was simpler–at least it seemed so at the time–and when I “fit in” my family, community, and culture as a mainstream Episcopalian. But then came the years of questioning, and doubt, and study which led eventually to a very different understanding of my religion and to the Unitarian Universalist ministry. I left behind much/most/perhaps all of my childhood acceptance of group beliefs, and set off on an uncharted journey of exploration and, what I hope is growth.
Notice that I am tentative in trying to say all this as I consider my spiritual life a work in progress, a journey, and the older I get, the more I realize how much I don’t know and how important it is to listen to what others have to say and to be authentic and true to myself. One thing that I have become aware of as years go by is the extent to which I am culturally an Episcopalian. I was raised in a church that had wonderful massive bells that we young people rang by pulling ropes which we could ride high in the air. We had a terrific organ and choir that gave me a lifelong love of classical and choral music. We had a liturgy that exposed me weekly to the finest cadences of the English language. It was a place of great beauty and love, and Christmas was for me a high point the year, with its annual candlelight service and wonderful singing. In my college years, I stopped attending services, and when I moved to a different place and tried attending the local church, I discovered that I didn’t fit in. I found I could not, in good faith, believe or utter many of the words that were spoken, and I did not recover a sense of being part of a warm and welcoming community. Until I wandered into a Unitarian Universalist church, where I was pleased and relieved to learn that there are other persons like myself who cannot go along with traditional religious dogma. I joined, plunged in, and eventually ended up in the ministry. Along the way, I had some difficult moments. Like, what do we do with Christmas?
I remember one UU children’s service where the central event was the arrival of Santa Claus–in fact a miniature sleigh had been rigged to fly on a wire over the heads of the congregation. I have seen any number of pageants with our children dressed in improvised costumes, the smallest being angels, reenacting events surrounding the biblical birth of Jesus. At least one UU church in the area has a yearly tradition of interpretive dance on Christmas Eve. Somehow, though, we UU’s always manage a disclaimer: the Bible stories of the birth of Jesus are not history; these are ancient myths created according to ancient traditions. I have said it myself in Christmas sermons, how common accounts were of miraculous virgin births of important leaders, how we don’t know when or where Jesus was born, but the time of the winter solstice was a holiday long before early Christians made it their own, choosing Bethlehem because it fits predictions of the Jewish Bible. These are favorite themes of Unitarian Universalists at this time of year, because in some ways they justify our being Unitarian Universalists, rejecting literal and, for us, impossible myths, applying reason–scholarship–to such matters, and moving on in our faith. But, as my mother said to me when she learned I had joined a Unitarian Universalist church, “Faith in what?” In Jesus? In Santa Claus? In the Winter Solstice?
It helps to know that something like eighty percent of our members are not birthright UU’s, that we come from many traditions including atheist, agnostic, Jewish, and a whole range of Christianities, from conservative to liberal. One “New UU” class I led in a church I served had six members, all ex-Catholics. Those folks carried in them a lifelong “catholic” perspective, in a sense giving definition to their newly embraced Unitarian Universalism. For them, as for many of our new members, Unitarian Universalism is defined by what they no longer believe or accept. I suggest that how we understand our religion can only be understood in the perspective of what we learned as children. I remember taking a second grade UU Sunday school class to visit the “church across the street,” which happened to be Baptist, and having one of our children, whose parents were Jewish UU’s, blurt out that of course we were all Jewish. I think we carry those early teachings and experiences with us all our lives, and we understand what comes later in terms of what we learned earlier.
As I presented a month ago, there are stages in our growing faith: in moving on, we reject what we were taught as untrue, and we may have some anger or other emotional reaction towards the teachings we received that we now perceive as wrong. There is a lot of that in UU churches–often coming out as rejection of Biblical or traditional teachings. Yes, some people who have been hurt by religion come to us, seeking community and affirmation, but wanting nothing to do with church or worship or sermons or the Bible or ministers… or, you name it. There are critical pitfalls in all this:
1) that we UU’s begin to think that we have the answers while others don’t, a kind of arrogance,
2) that we UU’s lose our connection with our own heritage in Western biblical culture, and
3) that we UU’s find ourselves cut off from faith communities around us–the butt of Garrison Keillor’s jokes as the oddball church, the one that doesn’t fit in.
I might add that I am a big fan of Garrison Keillor, and I enjoyed his live appearance in Buffalo last weekend, when he did, as he does each week, joke about Unitarian missionaries and our pagan rites. I used to think he liked us, but I have been assured by colleagues, that, no, he really isn’t sympathetic towards our religious ideas, and he regularly plays his comic lines to the masses, making fun, all in good fun, but getting laughs from the fact that we don’t fit into traditional religious molds. Oh, the Lutherans may be comically challenged, and the Catholics may be overly ceremonial, but they all fit in, while we UU’s don’t.
So there is the dilemma for some of us: how do we best deal with our overwhelming cultural holiday of Christmas, when we don’t quite fit into that culture? For a start, let’s go back to what I have called the “pitfalls.” Number one, thinking that we know something that others don’t know. Let’s get over that. Most of our valued purposes and principals are valued in various ways by other religions. When we say we “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and think that is different from what others teach, we are hugely mistaken. The Golden Rule–do unto others as you would have them do unto you–is a part of all world religions. Affirming worth and dignity is a large part of many religions, though, granted, in different ways. Each religion sets limits on who and what is not OK. We do that too. See what happens when a sexual predator or child molester wants to join a UU congregation. Not everyone is welcome equally.
Many of our American Christian churches draw wisdom from the same scholarship that we UU’s know. They know that the biblical Christmas stories are not literally true, are myths. They celebrate them because they are such wonderful, powerful, meaningful myths, so firmly imbedded in our culture that we cannot live without them. The issue is not whether Jesus really was born in such a place at such a time or that kings or wise men or shepherds came to a manger. The issue is that a man with extraordinary presence and ideas was born long ago, and we wish to celebrate his birth, the symbol of new life and hope. We celebrate the end of darkness, the winter solstice, the coming of the light. For me, the Santa Claus myth, even understood as it may be as at a representation of warmth and love all around, falls far short of the ancient birth in Bethlehem story. And let’s face it, the music, art works, TV specials, and now holiday movies have lifted up the Jesus birth myth to a sublime cultural status. You don’t have to believe any of it to love and appreciate it. The myths, stories convey ultimate values of love, joy, peace, so badly needed in our wounded world, and we need to hear them.
I think too often, in rejecting mainstream beliefs, Unitarian Universalists ignore their own heritage. We forget that we come out of a profound and meaningful history, and that most of our religious ancestors were devout Christians. Think of Frances David and King John Sigismund–the first and only Unitarian king– John Murray, Hosea Ballou, Olympia Brown–the list goes on and on of people we honor as our founders, all Christian. Those who ended up being called and then calling themselves Unitarians questioned the nature of the trinity, and those who ended up being called and calling themselves Universalists said that all would be saved, but they did so within a firm biblical context. Yes, we have grown, evolved, become different from what we were. Our churches that are built today do not feature stained glass windows with Jesus, as does this church and the First Universalist Church of Rochester where I was an intern minister. We now prefer banners and windows representing a variety of faith traditions, with multiple symbols all around. We have chosen a new symbol of our own, the flaming chalice, first designed for the Unitarian Service Committee in the Nazi era, and officially brought into our churches in the 1970′s.
But, I think it is a mistake for us to forget our origins. I have heard many times, from enthusiastic, liberated, new UU’s, that they love this new found religion because they can “believe anything they want.” I admit that I am uncomfortable when I hear those words spoken in that way. My religion, my Unitarian Universalism, is not a matter of what I believe. It is a matter of what I do. Unfortunately, for some people, believing whatever they want translates into doing whatever they want, and I have known people who go to our churches–not this church, of course–because there they can be less than kind or considerate or compassionate with others, while they expect others to be kind or considerate or compassionate with them. It happens. Why is that? An anecdote from George Will’s 12/8/06 column in the Buffalo News may help, and I quote, speaking of Iraq :
“In June 2004, at the time the Coalition Provisional Authority was to transfer sovereignty to what it thought would be an Iraqui government, Americans were toiling to finish their work of occupation. The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran had a driver who, like other Iraquis, had obeyed the laws under Saddam’s police state but now began disregarding all traffic laws. ’When I asked him what he was doing, he turned to me, smiled, and said, ‘Mr. Rajiv, democracy is wonderful. Now we can do whatever we want.’”
It’s human nature–what happens when we discover new and previously unknown freedom… For me, learning of our religious ancestors, the struggles they went through to advance freedom, reason, and tolerance in their churches, is very important. We have a long and profound history, and I think knowing of it should be a part of our identity. If we lack such grounding, perhaps we deserve Garrison Keillor’s teasing more than we realize.
Historically, Unitarians and Universalists celebrated Christmas along with other Christian religions. In fact there are wonderful stories about how our members wrote some of our favorite hymns and created some of our most special Christmas stories. Unitarian poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and Unitarian minister Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” James Pierpont, music director of the Unitarian Church in Savannah , Georgia , wrote “Jingle Bells.” Unitarian Lydia Maria Child wrote “Over the River and Through the Wood.” And “the man who invented Christmas,” Charles Dickens, was a Unitarian. Let us remember these Unitarian Universalist forebears.
I regret that Unitarian Universalist congregations seem so often to be cut off from the churches around them. This being America , most of these other churches, especially in small towns like Albion , are Christian. These are our neighbors, our friends, perhaps even our family members, and I think we are challenged to find ways to join with them. What better time to do so than Christmas? My hope for us all is that we will find the time to remember the goodness of past holiday times, of the people we have known and the places we have been, treasuring the gift of such memories. And, for now, let us share our memories with each other, our children and grandchildren, telling them what life was like when we were young. I remember my mother telling me how, on Christmas Eve, her parents, immigrants from Germany , would light candles on their real Christmas tree. Now that she is gone, I want to know more. Oh, how I wish my parents and grandparents had told more stories of their families of origin and how they celebrated holidays. This holiday time is our cultural and religious heritage. Let us be fully present now, joining our many communities–our families, our church, our neighbors, our colleagues, our many circles of connection–listening respectfully to the many stories told by others, and telling our stories, together envisioning a world of hope and love and peace.
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