Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Are We Becoming an Intolerant World?

“This year, Teaching Tolerance teamed up with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding to bring educators a webinar series called Religious Diversity in the Classroom…Participants asked some great questions during and after Fostering a Culture of Respect, and we’d like to respond to a few we think are relevant to many educators. In this blog, we’ll address this question: How can I coach students to respond to others with empathy and respect?
1. ‘Find out more.’
2. ‘Be aware of the pitfalls of easy comparisons.’
 3. ‘Avoid generalized or simplified statements.’
4. ‘See religious and nonreligious traditions as diverse and dynamic.’
5. ‘Be honest about the limits of our understanding.’”
“Help Students Respond With Empathy and Respect”, Submitted by Sara Wicht on October 15, 2014. Posted on: Teaching Tolerance, A project of the Southern Poverty Law Center,

The whole article, the above is an excerpt from, gives me hope for the future of our young people.  You see, I worry about the generations behind me given the direction of our culture and our world.  There is an increase in bullying, intolerance, and misunderstanding between all generations.  Many people in our present culture, for a variety of reasons, are becoming less tolerant, patient, and compassionate with one another.

I am concerned about the tech savvy generations because they are so formed by it.  NPR recently featured a report on people who spend so much time on Facebook that they become addicted to it.  The way you find out if you are addicted to Facebook is by trying to go four days without using it.  Can you do this without discomfort or stress?  Increasing numbers can’t. 

Our culture teaches that people should get what they want now—no waiting, no patience.  Another NPR (yes, I listen to NPR regularly) report shared that people who are too into their tech tend to have trouble being patient and compassionate with people face to face.  They can be patient with people they are texting, instant messaging, etc. because they can cut them some slack, heck they might be multitasking just like everyone else.  But face-to-face, a person who communicates primarily through IMs and texting can see the other person is not doing something else and concludes that the person should be giving all of their attention, and immediate responses in a face-to-face communication or perhaps.  Patience, compassion, or consideration for the other person are not part of the interaction.

In addition to tech, there is increased polarization in our country.  A recent article in the Chicago Tribune (Washington Bureau by David Lauter on 10/22/2014) reports that people are choosing to only listen to people who are similar to them.  If you love Fox News, you are probably a political conservative, and you only hang with people who are political conservatives.  Increasing numbers of people are un-friending people who are different from them and increasing numbers are only listening to news that supports their views.  So why is this a problem? With polarization comes more prejudice, misunderstanding, and an unwillingness to work with someone who is different from you.  “Compromise” becomes a bad word because it means giving in to a different group.  Finding out more, being aware of pitfalls and easy comparisons, avoiding generalizations or simplified statements, seeing religious and nonreligious traditions as diverse and dynamic, and being honest about the limits of our understanding are much less likely to happen.  Why find out more, if you are getting your opinions from a “trusted source.”  Why be aware of the pitfalls of easy comparisons, when everything is black or white, liberal and conservative, gay or straight, Christian or non-Christian?  How can we avoid generalizations or simplified statements when that is all we are being fed?  

My concern for our culture, our country, and even our world, is that the combination of a lack of empathy, compassion and patience combined with the increased polarization, points us in a direction that will result in less getting accomplished in government, work, and even socially with more conflict due to lack of a willingness to work together.  Like any muscle empathy, compassion, and patience grow stronger with regular use.  I worry that today’s lack of willingness will become tomorrow’s lack of ability due to simple atrophy.  Atrophy-apathy-will cause us to become a less humane society.

I am concerned, yet I am also hopeful because there are groups trying to teach people how to dialogue with empathy and patience.  But there is plenty of work for all of us as we seek to foster a culture of respect.  Being willing to engage with people who are different from us is a great first step.  Supporting efforts like Teaching Tolerance is another.  Remember: “You may be one, but still you are one.  You cannot do everything, but still you can do something.  And because you cannot do everything, do not refuse to do the something that you can do.”  (adapted from an affirmation written by Edward Everett Hale)  We each must do the something we can do to foster empathy, compassion, and tolerance in our world.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Unitarian Universalists, the Bible, and god

“The Bible isn’t like God’s version of Apple’s ‘Terms and Conditions’ agreement.  The Bible doesn’t lay out before us God’s terms and conditions, where failure to adhere to one clause in the middle of page 87 will cause a breach of contract and banishment from God’s graces. The Bible is more like a grand narrative that reorders our imaginations and holds out for us an alternate way of seeing reality — with God at the heart of it rather than ourselves.” 
This quote is from an interesting article on a website called Faith Street, a site that helps people locate faith communities (including DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church) when they move to a new town.  Peter Eric Enns, a biblical scholar, theologian, and writer, was asked to list ten things he wishes everyone understood about the Bible, and this is one of those ten things.  You can read the entire article at

As I read this article, I thought about how many Unitarian Universalists experience the Christian Bible.  We certainly don’t accept it as an authoritarian God-given “Terms and Conditions” agreement.  I realize that some Unitarian Universalists see the Bible as relating to some other religious tradition, but not ours, and some Unitarian Universalists believe the Christian Bible has no place in our churches.  Yet, the Bible and the Christian religion are part of our history.  So how do we discuss the Bible and Christianity (and even god) if we don’t at least look at this part of our history?

Going back to the quote above, some Unitarian Universalists would have trouble with the sentence “The Bible is more like a grand narrative that reorders our imaginations and holds out for us an alternate way of seeing reality—with God at the heart of it rather than ourselves.”  I don’t think some Unitarian Universalists would have trouble with the first part of the idea that the Bible is be a grand narrative that has the potential to reorder a person’s imagination and/or holds out an alternative way of seeing reality.  Though many of Unitarian Universalists might not be attracted to that particular alternative way of seeing reality; my experience of Unitarian Universalists is that many would not find that statement deeply offensive.  I do think that the last part of the sentence “with God at the heart of it rather than ourselves” would give most Unitarian Universalists some trouble.

Many Unitarian Universalists have trouble with this word “god.”  Many Unitarian Universalists have come from a faith-home where that word was used to manipulate, abuse, control, and harass others.  And many Unitarian Universalists have a difficult time finding a new way to understand the word god that can make sense to them.  Certainly those Unitarian Universalists who understand the word “god” as representing supernaturalism would say the word has no meaning.  But words do have meaning.  And we, individually and collectively, decide what that meaning is.

For me, the word “god” means that there is a life-advancing force within the universe, within all things, that connects us to one another and all creation.  This meaning is not based on Biblical writings, but I guess I would also say it not in conflict with Biblical writings either.  

If we look at the last part of Enns’ sentence and keep in mind my definition of god, I wonder how many Unitarian Universalists, how many people who see themselves as spiritual but not religious, and how many humanists would reconsider the Bible as useful in their spiritual journey:  “The Bible is more like a grand narrative that reorders our imaginations and hold out for us an alternate way of seeing reality—with a life-advancing force within the universe, within all things, that connects us to one another and all creation at the heart of it rather than ourselves.”  I believe that the Bible was written by people of faith for people of faith to use as a narrative to aid them on their life journey.  So consider this: the Christian Bible is a grand narrative of stories: stories that might open up our imaginations, stories that might help us see the world in a different way, and stories that might help us find new ways to connect with one another and all creation.   Sit with those concepts for a little while, and notice what meaning percolate up through your mind and spirit.  Words do have meaning and our Unitarian Universalist congregations offer a place where questioners and seekers can not only explore the Upanishads, the Koran, and the Torah, but also the Bible in our free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Guns and Babies

“The Women's Health and Safety Act of 2013 navigated the Alabama Legislature last year, garnering the governor's signature in April 2013, but [U.S. District Judge Myron] Thompson quickly took issue with a provision requiring that doctors at abortion clinics have admitting privileges at local hospitals.
The state had argued the measure is designed to protect the health of a patient. The plaintiffs called it medically unnecessary due to the safety of abortion procedures and said the law would force three of the state's five clinics to shut down…
Revisiting the issue in the court's Monday ruling, Thompson said, "The court was struck by a parallel in some respects between the right of women to decide to terminate a pregnancy and the right of the individual to keep and bear firearms, including handguns, in her home for the purposes of self-defense."
Both [abortion and gun] rights are controversial, and there are opponents of each who, based on moral or ethical convictions, feel they should not be rights and deserve no constitutional protection. Each protected right is also held by the individual, but neither right can be realized "without the assistance of someone else," he wrote.
The right to bear arms means little if there is no one from whom to procure guns and ammunition, Thompson wrote. Likewise, the right to abortions is meaningless if there are no medical professionals to perform them…
‘So long as the Supreme Court continues to recognize a constitutional right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, any regulation that would, in effect, restrict the exercise of that right to only Huntsville and Tuscaloosa should be subject to the same skepticism,’ he said.”
(CNN, Federal judge: Abortion like right to bear arms By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN, August 5, 2014What if Alabama passed a law that shut down all but two of the state's guns-and-ammo stores?)

This is a comparison that catches my attention.  How do we support a person’s right and decide what, if any, limitations to set upon that right?  How would a libertarian answer this question?  Would they suggest no limitations?  How practical is it to have a right without limitations?  We have the right to drive a car, once we have completed a series of tests that verify we are able to drive a car safely.  And while I strongly believe that there needs to be some commonly held safety guidelines for a woman receiving an abortion, at what point do the safety regulations become an impediment to a woman’s right to choose whether to have a child?

I understand that some people do not believe in abortion on religious grounds.   But the courts have already decided that a woman has the right to choose whether to have a child.   As many of you know, I am also passionate about gun control.  What if I said that my religious beliefs gave me the right to try to restrict people from having access to places where they could buy guns?  But the constitution and the courts have already decided a person has a right to bear arms.  So, then, how would my efforts to restrict access to guns be any different than what some people are doing to restrict access to places where safe abortions can take place?

What is that thing Jesus said, "how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.”  Am I a hypocrite for wanting to preserve a woman’ right to choose while taking a stand against gun access?

How do we decide these heated issues in ways that don’t restrict a right into meaningless words, but instead offers reasonable regulation?  Unfortunately I do not believe that the people who are passing these anti-abortion laws are thinking about the safety of the woman—I believe they are thinking “how can we manipulate the system so our beliefs are made into law.”  And that, my friends, begins to blur some pretty important boundaries separating church and state.

It is curious that no one in this country has thought to turn gun control into a religious issue.  Perhaps the commandment “thou shalt not kill” (frequently used to support anti-abortion arguments) could be used as an argument to begin regulating access to guns, giving law enforcement access to lists of gun owners, or legislating mandatory educational programs to teach people how to use guns safely.  Just a thought.