Thursday, September 28, 2006

Mr. Bush, why do you hate freedom?

The New York Times is running an editorial (reg. req'd) that calls the new terrorist interrogation bill "a tyrannical law that will be ranked with the low points in American democracy, our generation’s version of the Alien and Sedition Acts". Here's some more:

These are some of the bill’s biggest flaws:

Enemy Combatants: A dangerously broad definition of “illegal enemy combatant” in the bill could subject legal residents of the United States, as well as foreign citizens living in their own countries, to summary arrest and indefinite detention with no hope of appeal. The president could give the power to apply this label to anyone he wanted.

The Geneva Conventions: The bill would repudiate a half-century of international precedent by allowing Mr. Bush to decide on his own what abusive interrogation methods he considered permissible. And his decision could stay secret — there’s no requirement that this list be published.

Habeas Corpus: Detainees in U.S. military prisons would lose the basic right to challenge their imprisonment. These cases do not clog the courts, nor coddle terrorists. They simply give wrongly imprisoned people a chance to prove their innocence.

Judicial Review: The courts would have no power to review any aspect of this new system, except verdicts by military tribunals. The bill would limit appeals and bar legal actions based on the Geneva Conventions, directly or indirectly. All Mr. Bush would have to do to lock anyone up forever is to declare him an illegal combatant and not have a trial.

Coerced Evidence: Coerced evidence would be permissible if a judge considered it reliable — already a contradiction in terms — and relevant. Coercion is defined in a way that exempts anything done before the passage of the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, and anything else Mr. Bush chooses.

Secret Evidence: American standards of justice prohibit evidence and testimony that is kept secret from the defendant, whether the accused is a corporate executive or a mass murderer. But the bill as redrafted by Mr. Cheney seems to weaken protections against such evidence.

Offenses: The definition of torture is unacceptably narrow, a virtual reprise of the deeply cynical memos the administration produced after 9/11. Rape and sexual assault are defined in a retrograde way that covers only forced or coerced activity, and not other forms of nonconsensual sex. The bill would effectively eliminate the idea of rape as torture.

230 years ago, our patriotic and religious predecessors raised a successful rebellion to deprive the government of the power to impose exactly such injustices. (It was a Congregational clergyman with a radical Unitarian theology, Jonathan Mayhew, who preached what was called "the sermon that started the Revolution", Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers.) By the 1830's, however, the French political analyst Alexis de Tocqueville marveled that American freedom and democracy had thus far been able to resist being corrupted by what he called "the tyranny of the majority", and wondered how much longer it would be able to continue to protect the liberty of minorities against popular passions.

M. de Tocqueville, vous avez votre réponse aujourd'hui. However, today the word "tyranny" has become an abstract cliché rather than the call to the barricades that it once was, so it may be more pertinent to call the same phenomenon by another, more recent and more emotionally charged, term. What we are witnessing in this bill today, quite literally, is the substitution of liberty with fascism in the United States.

Mr. Bush, why do you hate freedom?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Read this book

You may have read enough UU history to know that Bronson Alcott was an idealistic Transcendentalist associate of Emerson and Thoreau, an impractical thinker of large thoughts who made and then frittered away a small fortune and depended on his daughter's writing income to support him in his old age.

Or you may have read the children's classic, Little Women, written by Famous UU Louisa May Alcott, his daughter. You may even know that the setting of the book -- the four daughters and mother of the March family growing up in a Civil War-era household while Mr. March was largely absent -- is thought to be styled after her own family.

Now, author Geraldine Brooks has filled the gaps in Louisa's well-loved story by supplying the narrative of the absent Mr. March -- his service as a Unitarian chaplain to the Union troops, as well as his earlier life history -- in her Pulitzer-winning novel, March. Following Louisa's pattern, she carefully constructs the Mr. March character on the model of Louisa's own father, Bronson.

The novel is a poignant study in the conflict betweeen idealism and evil, a conflict in which idealism does not necessarily triumph, and perhaps offers lessons for ourselves as Alcott's successors carrying the standard of liberal religion forward into our own evil-tinged time.

Read it. You'll be glad you did.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Rev. Scott Tayler Knocks the Cover Off the Ball

Last weekend, Fausto made his annual pilgimage to his birthplace of Rochester, NY, to drive his mother home from the Massachusetts coast where she spends her summers.

Feeling lazy on Sunday morning after a long drive, he did not bother to attend the services in the church of his infancy, First Unitarian of Rochester. Boy, was that ever the wrong decision. Fausto and mom had dinner Sunday evening with some Rochester parishioners who couldn't stop raving about the sermon.

Fortunately, Rochester is one of those tech-savvy congregations (and why not, since Rochester Institute of Technology contributes many of its congregants) that posts podcasts, streaming audio, and downloadable mp3's of sermons on their website almost as soon as the service is ended. So after a busy week, Fausto finally listened this morning to the sermon he regretted missing last Sunday.

And what a tour de force it is! Building on the story of Noah in Genesis (which is rarely taught in its entirety) and applying it to our nation's response to the 9/11 attacks over the last five years, the Rev. Scott Tayler touches on many of the most difficult themes in contemporary religion, including many of the most controversial in our own UU heritage -- the widespread abuse of Scripture; the inherent depravity rather than worthiness of human nature; the fallibility and mutability of God; the radical reconciling power, usually untested, of unmerited love even for our enemies; the false security of hubris, self-righteousness and vengeance, and the ease with which they seduce even the faithful. He also weaves together religious principle and political witness in a manner that I'm guessing would satisfy even the ChaliceChick.

You must listen to this sermon:

The Religion of 9/12 by the Rev. Scott Tayler (streaming)

The Religion of 9/12 by the Rev. Scott Tayler (mp3 download)

Monday, September 18, 2006

You may not always be infallible, but when you're right you're right

So Pope Benedict gives a dry, scholarly lecture defending the importance of reason in religion (a topic that should be dear to the heart of most UUs), in which he happens to quote a medieval Byzantine emperor who noted that there is a tendency toward violence within Islam, and that it is evil. An excerpt:

"In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that Sura 2, 256 reads: 'There is no compulsion in religion.' It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat.

"But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the 'Book' and the 'infidels,' he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words:

"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.

"The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul:

"God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death....

"The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature...."

And some Muslims get so insulted that they start shooting nuns and burning churches, just to prove the Pope wrong.

Except that instead, they prove him right.


Monday, September 11, 2006

Five years ago today... wife was in the air over New York on an 8:30 AM flight from Boston to Washington, and I was glued to the TV having a panic attack. She called me from National Airport (I will not call it "Reagan National") to say that there was some kind of fire that broke out nearby shortly after she had landed, but if I heard anything in the news about a problem at National Airport, she was okay. The fire she saw breaking out, as it turned out, was the attack on the Pentagon, which the TV news wasn't reporting yet.

Five years later, we're bogged down in a war we started under false pretenses without committing enough troops to win, scores of people -- both American and Iraqi -- are dying needlessly every day, their blood is on our hands, and we don't even know where Osama Bin Laden is.

As The New York Times said in its lead editorial this morning:

It was a time when the nation was waiting to find out what it was supposed to do, to be called to the task that would give special lasting meaning to the tragedy that it had endured.

But the call never came. Without ever having asked to be exempt from the demands of this new post-9/11 war, we were cut out. Everything would be paid for with the blood of other people’s children, and with money earned by the next generation. Our role appeared to be confined to waiting in longer lines at the airport. President Bush, searching the other day for an example of post-9/11 sacrifice, pointed out that everybody pays taxes.

That pinched view of our responsibility as citizens got us tax cuts we didn’t need and an invasion that never would have occurred if every voter’s sons and daughters were eligible for the draft. With no call to work together on some effort greater than ourselves, we were free to relapse into a self- centeredness that became a second national tragedy. We have spent the last few years fighting each other with more avidity than we fight the enemy.

When we measure the possibilities created by 9/11 against what we have actually accomplished, it is clear that we have found one way after another to compound the tragedy. Homeland security is half-finished, the development at ground zero barely begun. The war against terror we meant to fight in Afghanistan is at best stuck in neutral, with the Taliban resurgent and the best economic news involving a bumper crop of opium. Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11 when it was invaded, is now a breeding ground for a new generation of terrorists.

Listing the sins of the Bush administration may help to clarify how we got here, but it will not get us out. The country still hungers for something better, for evidence that our leaders also believe in ideas larger than their own political advancement.

It was a very sad day five years ago, and it still is today.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Bush reminds Americans U.S. is at war

That was the title of an AP headline a few minutes ago.

If we're truly at war, he should mobilize the whole damn country and lead us to total victory. Rationing, taxes, conscription, the whole nine yards. This Middle East stuff is nothing. Syria? Iran? Al Qaeda? Taliban? We defeated the combined forces of Germany and Japan in less time than has passed since 9/11.

But if he's not willing to put the country on an all-out war footing and get about the serious business of victory, he should shut the f*** up. If you want a war, then really take us to war, George, and see whether the nation is willing to follow you there. If you don't want to take us to war, though, then just shut the f*** up. Quit behaving like you're a pansy-ass National Guard weekend flyboy who plays at soldiering but skips flight training, while other people's kids are out there dying for your freedom.

If this were a real war, it would have been Jenna and Barb in flight suits landing on that carrier, not you.

O the ignominy!

Reagan Wins Another Vote, to a Place in Congress


SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 4 — No one would ever have mistaken Thomas Starr King for a Democrat. A fiery Republican clergyman with an oratorical flair, King stood shoulder to shoulder with Lincoln during the Civil War, barnstorming California to preach the gospel of unity when the nation had split apart and secessionist feeling here was high as well.

Politicians, however, are nothing if not fickle in their affections. So it was that last week the California Legislature, at the behest of a Republican lawmaker, decided that a statue of King should be replaced in the National Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol by one of a more modern Republican with a similar gift for public speaking: Ronald Reagan. ...

[Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company]

Saturday, September 02, 2006

What gets you through the hard night?

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Matthew 26:36-44

The UU Blog Carnival question this month is, What gets me through the hard night? I’ve had a few of them, and in looking back I can say that I knew for myself what we are told the Universalists always preached: Nothing can separate me from the everlasting love of God. God is with me steadfastly, even when all things seem to be arrayed against me, even in my deepest suffering, even in those times when, as Jesus discovered, my will is contrary to His. I know this in my bones, and it gets me through. Though I do not claim to know and cannot describe what God is, the essence of God is the Love that conquers all despair, and it will never abandon me. I am not alone, but am a part of the Whole.

But the apprehension of that truth is not original with me, nor even with our Universalist denominational antecedents. It was also known to King David, who wrote in Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.”

The Psalms, in fact, are chock full of this understanding. So also, part of what gets me through the hard night is realizing that what seems true to me today has also been true for thousands of years before I came to understand it. And the fact that it has been known for thousands of years, in turn, shows that the God’s love is indeed universal, and the knowledge of it is universally available, as the Universalists argued.

O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord,
You know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Whither can I go from Your spirit?
Or whither can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
and Your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You;
The night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to You.
For it was You who formed my inward parts;
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are Your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In Your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are Your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with You
. Psalm 139: 1-18

Of course, many UUs today shun the Psalms along with the rest of the Bible; they reject the validity of turning to it for truth in time of trouble. They may disagree with the view that it is of divine origin, or they may view it as unreliable because it contains supposedly factual material that is demonstrably wrong, or they may view it as only one of a worldwide anthology of religious texts we may browse like a dim sum menu for only those morsels that appeal to us, or they may associate it with the abusiveness of another religious tradition that exalts it, or they may associate it with a specific image of a specific deity the existence of which they deny.

My view is different, as is the historic witness of the Universalist and Unitarian denominations whose legacy we have inherited. I view the Bible as the work of human hands rather than the record of a divine voice, but also as the human witness to things that countless generations before us have found in their own experience to be true. Thus, when I read something in the Bible that conflicts with my understanding, I allow the Bible a presumption of truth and look for ways to reconcile the two.

The words of the Bible may be human, not divine, but we UUs have never denied the authority of human witness. The Bible may contain its authors’ factual errors and other limitations of understanding peculiar to their own times and places, but those instances are easily recognizable and do not taint other, more timeless and/or metaphorical, truths. The Bible may reflect the religious orientation of only one culture among all the world’s, but it is the witness of our own culture, and the truth of its witness is confirmed in the parallel apprehensions of others. The Bible may be revered, even to the point of idolatry, by abusive religious groups, but when that occurs it is as much the victim of their abuse as any human victim, rather than the source of the abuse. And, most of all, the clear witness of the Bible is that God is ultimately inapprehensible and indescribable and not just a Big Guy in the Sky, yet also that the essence of God is love and not punishment:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above. Exodus 20:4

Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And [YHWH] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘YHWH’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And YHWH continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” Exodus 33: 18-23

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. I John 4: 16

And so it remains a valid exercise, and even sometimes a necessary one, even for us skeptical UUs, even those of us who find supernaturalism incredible, even those of us who find ancient pre-scientific myths to be fraught with foolish superstition, to turn to the Bible in times of despair for comforting truth, just as our own denominational predecessors did, and countless others before them.

God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
And though the mountains are shaken in the midst of the sea,
Though the waters rage and foam,
And though the mountains quake at the rising of the sea.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
The holy dwelling-place of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her, therefore she shall not be moved;
God will help her, and at break of day.
The nations make uproar, and the kingdoms are shaken,
but God has lifted his voice, and the earth shall tremble.
The Lord of hosts is with us: the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Come then and see what the Lord has done:
What destruction He has brought upon the earth.
He makes wars to cease in all the world,
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear,
and burns the chariots in the fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God:
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted upon the earth.’
The Lord of hosts is with us: the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Psalm 46

“Be still, and know that I am God.” It’s not such a bad mantra in times of fear or danger. It too has helped me settle my nerves in those long, dark nights.

As has a re-setting of Psalm 46 that may be more familiar to many of us than the original. It began as a paraphrase by Martin Luther, who is also familiar, at least by name, to most of us. What most people don’t realize, though, probably not even most UUs, is that the familiar re-setting is actually a translation of Luther’s paraphrase by our own Frederic H. Hedge, 19th-century Unitarian minister, Harvard professor, and co-founder with Ralph Waldo Emerson of the Transcendental Club, and that its portrayal of the nature of Jesus is characteristically Unitarian:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.