Popular Posts

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Arms and the Land Downunder

Current Australian gun laws, introduced in 1996, as well as their clear effects on suppressing gun-related violence, are frequently cited by gun control advocates in the USA. These laws and their effects were achieved in the wake of the Port Arthur shooting, when a lone, white, mentally-disturbed gunman armed with a stockpile of automatic weaponry, went on a rampage, shooting up a quiet Tasmanian tourist town, killing 35 and wounding 4. Here down-under, such a scenario is the stuff of nightmares, not of the nightly news.

Seems we're doing SOMEthing right down here.

The laws introduced by the then Liberal-National party coalition government (note: for “Liberal” read “Conservative” here. Don’t ask me why…) were sweeping in scope, aimed at a total prohibition on the ownership, possession, sale, and importation on all automatic and semi-automatic firearms. These laws were enforced by a 6-month amnesty, during which time, the owners were invited to sell such weapons back to the government, which, in turn destroyed the surrendered guns. Failure to comply would mean tough penalties, including jail time. Included in the raft of legislation were a national gun registry, stricter guidelines for licensing and training, and an education program. There are still occasional amnesties and buy-backs for unregistered and illegal guns.

Some 650,000 weapons were culled in the first buy-back. 

By and large, the legislation was passed in its entirety—such was the national shock and horror at the Port Arthur massacre. The LNP government saw the political capital in the tragedy, the public mood, and the public benefit, and acted swiftly and decisively under the strong leadership of PM John Howard. As an indisputably direct result of this legislation, homicides fell by 59% and gun-related suicides by 65%. There were 13 mass shootings in the 18 years preceding Howard’s gun laws. There have been no ‘mass’ shootings since. 

The event that shocked a nation and its leadership into action

Such events as Las Vegas or Sandy Hook simply do not happen here any longer. More than those statistics is the freedom one feels here: freedom from random gunfire, freedom from being torn apart by high-velocity rounds blithely squeezed off by someone having a very bad day. Australians can go to any large event, walk on a crowded street, study on a busy campus, or catch mass transport, and it will never occur to them that more than half the people around them are strapped and loaded. Because they aren’t. Only the cops are. So, to sum up…

A mass shooting.

A shocked nation.

Strong, decisive leadership.

Comprehensive, practical action by legislators and law enforcement.

These events combined to produce unarguably positive results for Australia. 

If you sense some ‘buts’ coming, you’re right and here they are:

1.       The legislation was initially opposed by a significant slice of the National party, part of the Liberal-National coalition government that generally represents the interests of farmers. Australia is still a frontier economy, based on primary production, and weapons are part of every farmer’s tool kit. While it is true that you don’t need an AR-15 to deal with the feral pest control of foxes and dingoes that attack grazing stock, nor to control native grazing animals like kangaroos, farmers find semi-automatic rifles pretty useful in the management of threats to grazing and growing. There is still, among farmers, a strong resentment to control of such weapons, and corresponding pressure on National Party members to soften the laws.

2.       Australians continued to buy guns since 1996. In fact, there are now more privately-owned guns that there were in 1996, although with population increasing the per capita rates are significantly lower than they were before the legislation. As gun technologies change, as wealth from pressure groups like the NRA are deployed internationally, the Australian government will need to be vigilant to resist pressure groups, keep effective laws in place, and toughen them where needed. The past ten years has seen much leadership instability—5 changes of PM, minority and coalition governments, and wafer-thin majorities. Swift, decisive, unilateral leadership may be becoming a fond memory in the sunburnt country.

3.       The NRA has Australia in its cross-hairs. Since Australia is held up as a model for intelligent gun legislation, the NRA has pushed-back with propaganda ads full of outright lies about the country—that populace are in revolt against gun control, that ‘only the criminals here have guns’, that we are suffering under big-brother socialism, etc. etc. You know the tune. But you wouldn’t know these are false if you are at geographical and cultural distance from here. The NRA are coming for our guns, Australia, and they want to hand them back to us.

NRA spokesman: "Black is white, up is down...etc., etc., 

4.       John Howard was no saint. Howard, along with Bush and Blair, was arguably guilty of war crimes in his fervent and active support of the wars of the past decade. While genuinely and visibly shocked, appalled, and angered into action over local white deaths in a tourist town, Howard had not the least compunction about the collateral slaughter of Iraqi or Afghani civilians and their children, and still does not. The gun laws may be his one triumphant legacy.

5.       Australians have no right to feel smug about what its gun laws have achieved. They may express bewilderment at a culture with such a huge pathology--an average of one mass shooting per day—that could be so easily solved with such comparatively straightforward solutions. However, Australia as a country is in denial about its own violent pathologies, namely:

a.       the international disgrace of our harsh, punitive, inhumane, militarized, and torturous asylum-seeker policies;

b.       the systemic oppression of Indigenous Australians evidenced in low mortality rates, high incidence of aboriginal deaths in custody;

c.       the gleeful cashing-in on fossil fuels in a time of rising temperatures, sea-levels, rates of climate-related deaths;

d.       progressive de-funding and de-institutionalization of Mental Health care

I am a US-born Minister serving here; I grew up in West Baltimore (The Wire, anyone?). I left the US as a young man in 1985, in part because I didn’t want my children to grow up in a place where gunshots ringing out in the night were entirely normal, where their right not to be shot was trumped by everyone’s right to own assault weapons, where the pathological addiction to weaponry was a normal fact of life.

Yet these things, so bizarre to Australians, are entirely normal if you grow up in the states. My father was entirely normal, and the most peaceful man you could know, yet even he kept three—THREE—weapons in the house: a Saturday night special six-shooter, a Mauser semi-automatic, and a pump-action shotgun. The shotgun was bought on the QT from ‘a guy down at the plant’. Soon after he bought it, he was showing it off to my elder sister one day. He demonstrated how you pump the stock to put one in the chamber…and promptly blew a hole in the bedroom ceiling the size of an NBA hoop. Fortunately, my mother was not home. He swore my sister to silence, and being a gifted handyman, got up in the loft and patched and painted the hole so you’d never know it was there. My sister and father kept this secret until after he and mother had passed away.
Let's keep this a secret...
But if my sister’s tender, beautiful, face had been in the way of this dumb, atrocious accident, there could have been no denial, no secrets, no lies. That is the sort of shame and horror that cripples families and ripples down to affect generations yet unborn. None of us, and none of our children or their children, could have gone unaffected by it. The sins of the fathers (even my sinless father) do indeed get visited upon the children. I grieve for the victims of Las Vegas and their families and friends. But I grieve somehow more for the generations of kids yet unborn who will be brought into life in so violent a place as the USA.

The USA has not been so lucky as my family was. As a nation, my birth-country lost its crucial parenting moment at Sandy Hook. If a pile of the bullet-riddled bodies of kindergarteners doesn’t change the national taste for violence, I’m not sure if anything will. But the lies about gun violence, the secrets about the wealth and corruption that keeps guns firmly entrenched in our homes, and the denial that this is a national pathology must be exposed, exposed now, and by those in the position to do something about it swiftly and decisively.

Leaders can begin by listening to voices outside the US media bubble. Australian is not some other planet. It’s very much like the US. And Australia is not alone in having effective gun legislation. Apologies for salty language, but fuck your exceptionalism, America. Learn from us and from others before more innocent lives are mown down by this ongoing nightmare, the apocalyptic scythe that stalks your every home and street.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Lectio Divina as Post-Modern Worship

Few initiatives in my one-and-only Ministry have been as risky and as necessary to the unfreezing of our faith tradition as offering Lectio Divina as weekly worship.

Lectio Divina is a four-stage process that seeks to engage the whole person
Lectio Divina is Latin for 'divine reading', and is a fairly ancient and rather monastic way of approaching scripture. It offers a method of reading any text as way of prayerful practice. I say 'any text' because, in our pluralist way, we have put together a 'wiki' of influential readings (democratically sourced) to draw from, and these 100 or so have been bound together in no particular order in a large, hard-copy volume.

"Risky" first, because it can be perceived as Christian reconstructionism. While the Latin name and the big book may appear a bit old-high-churchy, Lectio Divina, stripped of Bible and personal God, is no more Christian (and far less Catholic) than lighting votive candles, which we happily do weekly at Sunday service.

Beyond surface impressions, what makes this practice truly risky is that it is a 21st-century Post-modern project in a church still largely stuck in late 19th-early 20th century Modernism. For those unfamiliar with these philosophic terms, here is a quick precis:
As a post-modern approach relates to words, texts, and their meanings, we need to admit that language and meaning are fluid and arbitrary. They are “messy”, because they're subjectively experienced and subject to pressures of culture and personal experiences within those cultural settings. Only power decides which readings of a text are objective, privileged, or 'right'.

A word or phrase, for example, may have connotations for a reader that the author never intended, but that does not make them wrong. Your experience is your experience, and your subjectivity is real.

Lectio Divina encourages exploring and developing your subjective experience through lateral thinking, free associations, and personal narratives prompted by a reading. It discourages rational analysis, whose object is to assert the superiority of the reader over the text, first by 'cracking' the text open like a walnut to extract the useful message, and second, by prevailing over the offered text by agreeing or disagreeing--as if one's approval were the only arbiter of value. It hardly needs pointing out that these twin modernist drives seek to exploit and to subjugate through 'reason', which alone leads to universal, objective truth, which is necessarily 'good'. If only that were true...

The problem of course is that the modernist world-view--where language is transparent and the signifier (the word) equals the signified (the thing or concept)--has been utterly exploded, not merely by advances in both philosophy and physics in the last 50 years, but also by anyone who is prepared to be honest about the way we experience the world.

"This is not a pipe" is true...it's a rendering of a pipe. The difference between signifier and signified is critical.
The inner world of each of our subjective consciousness is a universe in itself, and one worth exploring. The multi-dimensionality of our consciousness is predicated on the recent revelations of quantum mechanics: the universe goes infinitely outwards and inwards, and what's 'out there' and what's 'in here' are both infinitely complex and deeply interconnected. Thus, your experiences, associations, feelings, and mental images of pipes will be different from mine: neither is more valid. So, respect for a person's inner life is necessary, and may be the underlying metaphysic of our first UU principle: "The inherent worth and dignity of every person."

There are three challenges in Lectio Divina. First, being willing to get past the ego's desire to dominate the text, pull it apart, and assert and defend a 'meaning'. Second, becoming a psycho-naut. Freed of the lenses of judgement and criticism, you can boldly go where you've maybe not gone before--letting the text interrogate you, rather than the reverse, and expanding your stock, culturally-formed responses by 'accessing all areas' of the bottomless universe that is you.

Third, and perhaps hardest to cultivate, sharing what random associations and lateral connections you've dredged up with a room full of other people doing the same thing. This takes time, for it relies on daring and trust and the building of a safe space within which to offer what is deeply and particularly inside you to become common knowledge. And when people do share such things, listening and accepting the truth of their experience without judgement or comment., we can grow in compassion and acceptance.

How is this worship? Easy: it 'raises to worth' truth, generosity, humility, grace, and cultivates respect and compassion for each other. Indeed, as someone said of Lectio Divina, you come to find that "Listening and Loving are closely related."

How is it a challenge for UUism? Again, easy: there is an underlying assumption in Modernist thinking that all reasonable beings will come to the same coherent, humanistic conclusions. That justice looks the same for everyone. That objective truth exists 'out there' waiting to be discovered if only we could just think more rationally.

The science and philosophy of the last 50 years has made this a nonsense. The trouble is, UUs are caught in transition between these two world views. The latest UU thinking has for example, rejected the Modernist "Freedom, Reason, Tolerance" mantra in favour of a recognition of the greater complexity and convergence implied in the words "Generosity, Imagination, and Pluralism".

Lectio Divina, though a practice of that past, shows a fruitful way of engaging the contemporary religious life without Modernist delusions.

Monday, May 22, 2017

While we remember the victims of Manchester...

While we remember in our thoughts and prayers the victims of the Manchester bombing, let us be mindful--
  • Before certain politicians and media companies begin a fresh round of demonizing an entire religion in the self-serving lust to garner votes, clicks, and tweets...
  • Before this tragedy is used as a fresh excuse to ramp up the  militarized security state and kick down on refugees fleeing similar daily atrocities...
  • Before governments with a tenuous hold on the electorate beat more loudly on the drums of war...
  • Before the rush to judgement and condemnation...
--that the innocent kids we see fleeing the concert bombing have their counterparts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and other places.

Yes they do.

We see young Mancunians run from a bombing. We do not see people in Muslim countries running from bombs every day. Getting out, getting anywhere away from daily round of destruction, carnage, and 24-hour climate of fear. Getting all the way, sometimes, to Manus and Nauru.

We see young Mancunians, wounded or terrified, desperately seeking help, refuge, safety, comfort, We do not see (or do not allow ourselves to see) wounded or terrified Muslims fleeing their homelands to seek help, refuge, safety, comfort. Sometimes from us.

We see young Mancunians apparently intentionally targeted by a crude device. We do not see the schools, hospitals, wedding parties, markets, and workplaces intentionally targeted by sophisticated devices like drones and laser-guided missiles. Delivered and sanctioned by us.

We grieve for the young Mancunian survivors who will have to live the rest of their lives with the images of body parts, pools of gore, and children's corpses burned into their memories. We do not grieve for those who see such things as a matter of daily routine. Routinely ignored by us.

When people are slaughtered, survivors run away, whether in Manchester or in Fallujah. This is a equally normal response.

No child should have to witness the human form blasted into chunks of meat, whether in Manchester or in Aleppo. The trauma they will carry is equally inescapable.

"Why us?" they cry with one voice. "It's not fair to target us."

No, it's not fair, no matter where you are.

Why does distance and difference blind us to the simple truth that people are people are people?

Writing in a different time about a similarly oppressed and demonized people (the Jews), Shakespeare wrote:

"If you cut us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? And if you wrong us, shall we not seek revenge?" God (or whatever means The Good) forbid that the full measure of their revenge is not visited upon us.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us: what fearsome words to pray.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Users' Guide to the RobOTT, your new robotic Minister

Pax Vobiscum RoboticsTM congratulates you on your purchase of the new 2000-series RobOTT fully robotized Minister!

Better than a flesh and blood human Minister; somewhat better than no Minister at all!

Key features of the RobOTT 2000 fully robotized Minister:

1. Available in a comforting white male appearance, creating the impression of the high intelligence, privilege, authority, soundness of judgement, etc., of the modern urban professional. Included package as standard:

a. Blue blazer and bland suits
b. Conservative ties
c. Spectacles
d. Neutral accent/ethnicity cues

2. Is precision-crafted to balance the wisdom of age and the energy of youth.

3. Is pre-programmed to offer an inexhaustible variety of comforting words, gestures, and sounds when prompted.

4. Is firewalled against corruption by over-generous donors, over-flattering members, and anyone projecting anima/animus archetypes onto it.

5. Is inherently disembodied--sexless and free of vices; requires no privacy or private life.

6. Is equipped to absorb from users a full range of inputs--indifference, condescension, disdain, hero-worship, praise, projection, blame, judgement, vilification, micro-analysis, etc.--with 100% equanimity.

7. Is equipped with a 'light entertainment' mode, enabling it to output an endless archive of clean jokes, folksy anecdotes, interesting scriptural minutiae, toasts, and the odd old favorite song.

8. Is interfaced with Belief.net and Wikipedia data streams, so omniscience is virtually guaranteed.

9. Is finely tuned with an "Academic Equivocation" failsafe output monitor, so is able to remain 100% objective and disinterested in any exchange; has no inherent moral/ethical/political leanings.

10. Is programmed to produce verbal output which is more or less what new owners want to hear or already think; discomfort calibration set at the factory to absolute zero.

11. Is clairvoyant; programmed to sense immediately when a member falls ill or wants (or simply feels entitled to) on-site visits; arrives without being asked or, indeed, even notified.

12. Is programmed to refresh its sensibility hard-drive with simple verbal cues from its owners. For example: "Great service" or "I'm only sorry X wasn't here to hear that" or "You should have wider audience".

Our Guarantee:

1. Maximum moral and existential comfort; zero offence

2. Perpetual activity; minimum maintenance

3. High output at low on-pulpit costs: With only a minimum of routine maintenance, it will provide many years of reliable service. Your up-keep costs are capped  well below the average wage of your country of residence--locked in for the life of your RobOTT!

"If it's not OTT, it's not a RobOTT."

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

When 'tolerance' is intolerable

Many of the folks who seek out our church/movement/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, do so because we used to pitch ourselves with a handy 3-word slogan: "Freedom, Reason, Tolerance." This slogan, I claim, has done us as much harm as good, and should be consigned to our history.

To many, this looked like heaven-sent succour from the dark side of conventional religious affiliation--control, dogma, judgment. And indeed it is a wonderful gift, or it can be. Though individual congregations may have their own theological 'flavour', we do have certain principles to gently hold us together. For instance, we encourage each member to undertake a 'free and responsible search for truth and meaning'. We largely refrain from the language of 'sin' and suspend judgement on matters of lifestyle in free societies. For example, UU churches have been the place people came when the faith of their forebears prevents them from engaging rites of passage--for example, getting married after divorce or to someone of another faith, demanding oaths to a particular faith when welcoming children into the world, or enforcing a fairytale cosmology into the burial of a loved one. A UU congregation gave them the space to accept and make their own peace with how difficult and uncertain living this life can be.

But to some, that 3-word slogan looks like everything is permitted. A UU church will give them space to nurture and declaim intolerant bigotries. A UU church will give them room to exercise long-pent-up feelings of powerlessness by pushing others around without fear of push-back, because...freedom, man. A UU church will provide an endless and ready supply of easy-going folk for the narcissist's appetite for attention. A UU church will provide an open platform to construct and furnish the house they want to live in. No one will judge you, because we're free and tolerant. So, if you want to, you can get away with every damn thing you want. As with the current Trumpian governmental crisis in America, once the judiciary in rendered impotent, everything becomes possible.

We say we welcome all comers, and we do. But one of the more difficult aspects of UU ministry is having to confront and challenge those few who are so damaged, or whose maturity is so arrested, that they see our openness as a place to finally indulge themselves. In short, to draw perceptible limits to what tolerable, to remind them the free exercise of truth MUST be a responsible one, or everything's okay. And when you confront and challenge, our unhandy, archaic, 3-word slogan gets thrown in your face. "So much for tolerance! You're all hypocrites!" Tolerance is the serpent that eats its own tail.

My esteemed colleague, Rev. Peter Boullatta, put this better than I ever could in this seminal article some little while ago: https://peterboullata.com/2011/12/29/the-liberal-church-finding-its-mission-its-not-about-you/

If you haven't read that before, you really should.

Any parent of a nascent teenager will know that how you challenge and confront those who are simply not equipped to handle sudden, new-found freedom is a subtle art, and hard to get right. Largely, it's a matter of pastoral judgement--matching tone to content and matching those to what you know of the person's self-image, background, way of thinking. My experience is that, just as people who are mad don't think they're mad, people who use a UU church the way a baby uses a diaper likewise don't think they're doing anything amiss. Nine times out of ten, it's a no-win, and they stalk off somewhere else, a living bad PR-generating machine for the beloved community we try to build. Hey ho.

I have to say to any prospective ministers who may be reading--this is part of the job. In fact, this IS the job, the whole job. To see people's brokenness, to love them anyway since we are all broken, to teach and admonish when needed because you're the Minister, dammit, and to let go of controlling the result, even if it means losing them entirely.

Look at it this way, too: most of the faces you see before you in the church probably weren't there 20 years ago, and may not be in another 20. People come and go for many reasons, and none of it is entirely due to what ministers do or don't do.

So stick to your principles, and cut yourself a break.