Saturday, July 10, 2021

"How Should We See Our Country" by Reverend Tom Capo


           How do you think about our country today?  What do you think about the stories and myths that seem to buttress what we as Americans tell ourselves about our exceptionalism, our patriotism, about our forebears who never did anything damaging, hurtful, abusive, uninformed, or problematic?  Forbears who never lied, never supported slavery? Were you taught that Columbus discovered America?  About Paul Revere's Midnight Ride?  That the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th?  That Betsy Ross designed and sewed the first American Flag? That the Founding Fathers were Christians?  That the Star-Spangled Banner is a tune composed in the United States?  That the Liberty Bell was cracked on July 4th? That the Battle of the Alamo was fought to keep Americans Free?

            In Forget the Alamo, Tomlinson and Stanford write: "The Alamo is an American touchstone…a symbol of national resolve, looming during the 1950's as an embodiment of U.S. determination to halt the spread of Communism.  During the 60's, LBJ repeatedly invoked it to generate backing for the war in Vietnam.  In time it was embraced by "patriots" and right wingers who viewed Santa Anna's Mexican Army as a stand-in for all manner of threats, from Communists to brown-skinned immigrants pouring across the Mexican border…[And] The [Texas] State Board of Education actually has standing orders that school children must be taught a 'heroic' version of Alamo History."

            I grew up in Texas, actually I lived almost 40 years in Texas.  I was taught the "heroic" version of Alamo History.  I didn't question it until I was in college when I started to hear a smidgen of the more complicated history of the Alamo and really of the United States.  Being exposed to this new information happened around the time I started attending First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church.  In my Unitarian Universalist congregation, I was encouraged to question, to doubt, to not accept a truth just because someone told me or I read it.  Nowadays I would say do not accept a truth just because you saw it on the internet.  The members of my UU church encouraged me to study and consider truth by looking within myself and by seeking trusted sources for cultural context, for more complete in-depth information, and for various perspectives.  I was encouraged and supported in a responsible search for truth and meaning. 

            Even as I started my spiritual journey in Unitarian Universalism, I didn't immediately embrace the complicated history of the United States.  I guess I was still so enamored with being a United States Citizen, proud to be part of its experiment in democracy, its balance of powers with the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, its free-speech, and its freedom of religion; and its high standard of living.  There was so much to be thankful for living in this country at least for me, a white cis-gender heterosexual male.  I didn't put much energy into looking at how complicated our forebears and our country's history actually are.  After all, it all worked for me so why would I spend much time looking too closely at our history?

            However, eventually my curiosity led me to ask some harder questions and as one domino fell after another in my quest for truth and knowledge, I became increasingly aware that some of what I had been told and taught in school about the history of this country was an exaggeration at least, but most the American history I was taught was over-simplified, distorted, or just plain lies. It was around this time that I picked up Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen.  And I read: "So long as our textbooks hide from us the roles that people of color have played in exploration, from at least 6000 BC to the twentieth century, they encourage us to look to Europe and its extensions as the seat of all knowledge and intelligence. So long as they say “discover,” they imply that whites are the only people who really matter. So long as they simply celebrate Columbus, rather than teach both sides of his exploit, they encourage us to identify with white Western exploitation rather than study it.”  He went on to say: “In sum, U.S. history is no more violent and oppressive than the history of England, Russia, Indonesia, or Burundi - but neither is it exceptionally less violent.”

            Were you taught that George Washington's dentures were made of wood?  They weren't that's a myth.  Washington bought teeth from enslaved people.  "It is important to note that while Washington paid these enslaved people for their teeth, it does not mean they had a real option to refuse his request" ( Thomas Jefferson called slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” but continued to hold well over a 150 human beings as property his entire adult life.  And what about all the myths that support white supremacy culture in the United States--Betsy Ross really didn't design or sew the first American Flag; Paul Revere was just one of many riders that night; many of the Founding Fathers were not Christian and so on.  And now there are people in power—in state governments, for instance in Texas-- who want to deny or suppress our complicated history, making it illegal to discuss racism or use the 1619 project-- which "aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States' national narrative--or discuss critical race theory—which is an academic movement of civil-rights scholars and activists in the United States who seek to critically examine U.S. law as it intersects with issues of race in the U.S.--in the classroom because these make the United States look bad or they just want to deny our complicated, often violent, racist history.

            So what was I to do?  How was I to see this country? Feel about this country?  I was brought up on a white-washed, everything's great, move-along-no-problems here history of the United States. As I delved deeper and understood more about this country, I wondered how could I even celebrate the Fourth of July?  Just this week, the Unitarian Universalist Association put this out on their Facebook page: "July Fourth is far more complicated than just a long weekend filled with backyard BBQ's  and fireworks. That tradition is white America’s version of Independence Day. But what about the people whose land we live on? As the United States reckons with the racism and marginalization that are undeniable parts of its history, it’s important to speak about the harm faced by Indigenous people at the hands of colonizers. As we light our grills this year to celebrate Independence Day, we must remember that colonialism is a current and ongoing process. This land that we call home is Indigenous Peoples’ land. This land is a part of who they are. It’s a mixture of their blood, their past, their current, and their future."

            So here I am on the 4th of July wondering.  Wondering what to celebrate; Wondering what to think of this country I have loved.  Wondering.  As I read through Lies My Teacher Told Me, I remembered a few words that Loewen offered: “The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history but honest and inclusive history.”  Can I love my country as I look at it honestly?  Can I love my country even as I look at through a more inclusive historical lens?  Can I love my country as people in power try to suppress an honest and inclusive history?  What about you?  How do you feel about the USA as you look at it more honestly, and as you begin to see it through a more inclusive historical lens?  The answer is not simple.  At least the answer is not simple for me. 

              The Buddha once said: "Those who have failed to work toward the truth have missed the purpose of living."  Work toward the truth.  Well as I learn more, read more, discuss with people with varying perspectives more, and look within more, I think I am beginning to really see this country more clearly, more realistically, more honestly.  And I am committed to continuing this journey, even when I feel so many complicated feelings—anger, sadness, guilt, fear, and joy.  You might ask "How can I feel joy, with all this dishonesty and obstructionism and white supremacy culture surrounding me."  Well, I answer because I am on a spiritual and historical journey, and I am learning more about myself.  And I see others wanting to learn more about our complicated history.  Did you know that on June 5, 2020 "almost all of the top best-selling books on Amazon (seven out of 10) and at Barnes & Noble (nine out of 10) [took on topics around systemic racism], including How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, and So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. [And] On the most recent New York Times list of best-selling nonfiction in e-books and print, five of the Top 15 titles address racism. One of them, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s book about mass incarceration, was published 10 years ago." (The New York Times, People Are Marching Against Racism. They’re Also Reading About It. By Elizabeth A. Harris)

            I know many of you know that we have a Decentering Whiteness Book Club here at UU Miami.  And at times people outside the church have attended.  During our most recent class a young man from another state joined us.  He said he was moderate—I think he was talking about political and social, not right wing or left.  Yet as he spoke, he talked about how he felt that all this diversity and inclusivity was being shoved down peoples' throats and he didn't believe it was right.  He said he had read White Fragility, How to be an Antiracist, and other books on race, and he didn't agree with the worldview that racism has been and is problematic in our country.  He felt the good Christian values of treating others as you want to be treated would stop all this divisiveness.  I guess you can see where this is going.  Our intrepid group of Unitarian Universalists listened respectfully and offered our views, our thoughts; we didn't try to convince him, but we did plant seeds that there were other ways that white people see the complicated history of this country with racism and white supremacy deeply entrenched our culture.  How taking away rights and privileges from people of color negatively impacts all of us.  How another way of treating others might be to treat them as they want to be treated.  He felt that would be too hard because he didn't know them.  I suggested perhaps he could get to know them in order to treat them the way they wanted to be treated.  He talked about feeling verbally attacked in another group on antiracism he attended.  But in our book study no one got angry, though I did see a couple times that a few UU heads shook and there was more than one eye-roll. We let this young man know that despite our differences, he was welcome to join us in expressing his views; and we thanked him for joining us and engaging in a respectful discussion. I felt joy.  I still feel joy.  I and those Unitarian Universalists on that Zoom Book Study were making progress on our spiritual and historical journey, learning more about racism, learning more about white supremacy, and learning more about how to engage with people who have different views than us about the very difficult issue of racism in the United States. 

            Perhaps that is what I will celebrate on this 4th of July—that many of people in this country are reading, learning, making progress toward understanding what racism is and how it has influenced the laws and policies and structure and culture of this country.  While we are all in different places on the spectrum of understanding, more people are engaging in conversations about race than ever before.  More books on racism and its history in the US are being written and read than ever before.  Yes, I know there are people who are still trying to hold onto "Remember the Alamo" and "Patriotism" --meaning whitewashing history.  But today, I rejoice in our progress, not in our perfection.  I want to love our country because of its diversity and the willingness of more people in this country to stretch themselves and their worldview.  Yes, there is work to be done, and I for one will keep on doing it—reading, learning, advocating for antiracism and anti-oppression, but today I celebrate that I see and feel progress being made.  May this celebration be my prayer for our country.


"Playfulness" by Reverend Tom Capo


           Telling a story for the sake of telling a story or doing a silly putty meditation is what James P. Carse (Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility) calls an infinite game.  Having a tea party for your teddy bears and dolls, playing hide and go seek, and pretending you are a kitten are also infinite games. Carse says there are two kinds of games; there are finite and infinite games.  Most board games like Monopoly or Risk, as well as games like Football or Basketball are finite games. 

            Think for a moment, what are some of the characteristics of finite games—monopoly, football, even games like poker or spades? (there is an opponent, cannot be played alone, externally defined, rules are set up so someone can win, rules don’t change; finite game players play within boundaries…)  What are some of the characteristics of infinite games—tea parties for stuffed animals, playing hide and go seek, and pretending you are a kitten? (can be alone or with others, internally defined, don’t care when game begins, the only purpose is to prevent the game from coming to an end, to keep everyone playing, rules can change to keep the play going; infinite game players play without boundaries…) Finite games can be played within infinite games, but infinite games cannot be played within a finite game—or it is generally frowned on.  For instance you can play poker at a pretend tea party, but it would be unwise to find shapes of animals in clouds, which is an infinite game, while playing soccer—my oldest son did this when he was 4 years old.  Needless to say he did not go on to become a world class soccer player.  Carse says that the difference between finite and infinite play boils down to this: finite games are played for the purpose of winning and infinite games are played for the purpose of continuing to play.  Finite games have a defined beginning and end; they end when someone wins.  Infinite games could go on indefinitely, sometimes you can go in and out of playing them over a long period of time, perhaps even for a lifetime.  For instance you could play or pretend you are an astronaut again later today or next week or while you are driving to work.  Having lived here in Miami for almost 2 years now, I am pretty sure that many drivers in Miami are only playing the infinite game of driving, because they certainly are not following any of the driving laws that exist.

            One final thing about playing any game.  Whoever plays, whatever the game, whether infinite or finite, plays freely—this is the basic principle of play.  You cannot be forced to play or it is not really play.  Think about a gym class you may have been required to take as part of your high school or college education.  Let’s say it was basketball, for this example.  There is a qualitative difference between the basketball game you play in gym class and the pick-up basketball game you may have played with your friends on your own time.  Participation in one was a requirement; participation in the other was based on free choice.  According to Carse only the pick-up game is really playing a game.

            So let’s take all these ideas about games and play and consider how they relate to our personal spirituality and to religion.  How do you go about deciding what you believe?  And living those beliefs in the world? 

            We are all exposed to a variety of beliefs, values, ethics, morals, ideas.  How do we pick one or two or several and incorporate it or them into who we are?  Well, in a sense we make a game of it or play with it.  We sample a belief, then we might play with it in our minds, perhaps imagining or visualizing what it would be like to have that belief.  We might also play with that belief as we interact with others or the world.  In other words, we can develop our personal beliefs/values/ethics/morals/ideas through an infinite game.  This is not to say that everyone develops their beliefs this way; some people simply accept the belief system they inherited from their parents or from the church they grew up in or the culture that they live in.  But the idea of playing with beliefs/values/ethics/morals/ideas gives us the ability to not latch on to them blindly.  Instead we play with them until we decide if or how they fit for us.

            As many of you know I am a Buddhist, Panentheist, Humanist, Unitarian Universalist.  I suspect many of you would have difficulty describing your spirituality with one word.  And I have to say the labels that I use are gently playful rather than deadly serious, because I am not 100% Buddhist—instead I played with some Buddhist ideas and practices until I found the ideas and practices that fit for me.  In the infinite game of being a Buddhist, I practice Zazen Meditation, mental non-attachment, and lovingkindness for all beings, knowing that these beliefs, practices, and ideas work for me now, but I am open to new beliefs, practices, and ideas, as my life evolves. 

            I have also played with prayer.  The prayer I use today includes starting with various names for divinity, whichever comes to mind, then affirming the many blessings—good things that have happened—in my life, then offering lovingkindness and healing to all those who are experiencing suffering, both to those I know personally and then to anyone in the world who is suffering.  How I pray has changed over my life, from saying prescribed prayers like the “Our Father” to not feeling that prayer held any meaning for me, to trying on types of prayers from different religions and different authors—I particularly like prayers written by Unitarian Theodore Parker who, at least in my mind, playfully describes the divine in many natural ways including “Oh thou Infinite One, who dwellest not only in temples made with hands, but art a perpetual presence, living and moving and having thy being in every star that flowers above, and every flower that flames beneath.”

            And sometimes we decide we want to participate in this spiritual game or play with others as we consider our beliefs/values/ethics/morals/ideas.  Infinite play in community for the purpose of spirituality is religion.  Many UUs intentionally embrace spirituality as an infinite game.  They try on various beliefs/values/ethics/morals/ideas in a community that affirms a responsible search for truth and meaning.  Our heritage is one of change and playing with beliefs and ideas.  This religion has gone from two different Christian religions: Unitarianism-with its core tenets being that Jesus was human and there is no such thing as a Trinitarian god-- and Universalism—with its core tenets being that there is no hell and everyone is destined for heaven.  Over time UUism became more humanistic, focusing on how we live our lives in the here and now, to now being a more pluralistic religion with values rather than beliefs forming its foundation.  Often you will hear in this church that revelation is not sealed; our beliefs are not static; or that we are physical, mental, emotional and spiritual beings who are always in process.  We can be playful and we can be very serious about our beliefs, but we are always respectful of each other's beliefs in this community, or at least we aspire to be, because we know that we are all in process and all of us have a hard time using one single label to describe our beliefs.  Carse says of religious play: “The myth[s] of Jesus [Buddha, Mohammed are] exemplary, but not necessary.  No myth is necessary.  There is no story that must be told.  Stories do not have truth that someone needs to reveal, or someone needs to hear.  It is not necessary for infinite players to be Christians.  Indeed it is not possible for them to be Christians—seriously.  Neither is it possible for them to be Buddhists, or Muslims, or atheists seriously.  All such titles can only be playful abstractions...Infinite players are not serious actors in any story, but the joyful poets of a story that continues to originate what they cannot finish.  [Religion] is but one infinite game.” 

            One of the experiences that solidified that I am a Unitarian Universalist was when I attended a discussion group, not unlike the Decentering Whiteness Book Club or the Indigenous Peoples History of the United States Study Group we have here in this congregation.  I sat in a classroom at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth, Texas with around 15 others members of the church.  A television sat in one corner with a VHS player attached.  The leader of the group pushed the tape in the player and it began: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...."  Yes, we were watching the first Star Wars movie and then we had a serious and playful discussion of the theological implications of the film.  Sometimes the discussion became quite heated, like when someone wondered out loud if C3PO was a necessary character.  There was a time or two in our “Star Wars” discussion I wondered if someone was crossing the line, was beginning to be a little aggressive or disrespectful— when someone said, "there is no such thing as the force", but always there was someone in the group to stop the discussion to remind us of our of covenant: it is better to be compassionate than to be right.  At the end of the discussion about the spiritual messages in “Star Wars” we all got up thanked one another for joining in the discussion, shook hands or hugged, and left with positive feelings in our hearts.  This infinite game we call religion can be very serious at times, as people express their thoughts and feelings about spirituality, ethics, ritual, beliefs. 

            So as a rule for infinite play, I try to remember that covenant I learned all those years ago: being compassionate is more important than being right as I play.  I believe that it is important for us to respect the seriousness of each other’s beliefs while also being willing to be playful with one another as well.  This is not always easy to do.  Our intention may be playful, but the impact of something that is said or done may hurt someone who is present.  I am sure that you have experienced something like this when you are being playful with someone, saying something that that hurt them when you didn’t mean to.  During an infinite game when something is said or done with playful intent but comes across as hurtful or marginalizing or minimizing, let’s be ready to stop the game, express what hurt, then forgive one another and begin the game again in love. 

            As Unitarian Universalists we are doing something incredible here, something that is sometimes extremely difficult and yet wonderfully rewarding and enriching to our lives.  We are participating in an infinite game with one another.  As we continue to play with one another, we are also honoring each other’s worth and dignity, respecting each other’s beliefs, encouraging each other to grow spiritually and ethically, and affirming each other’s responsible searching for truth and meaning.  Self-help author Debbie Ford wrote: “Your soul is infinitely creative. It is alive and expansive in nature. It is curious and playful, changing with the tides of time.”  As you and we participate in this infinite game of spirituality and religion, I invite you be curious, be creative, be playful, open yourself to the possibility that you might change, and be prepared to grow in ways that you might not expect.  Namaste.