Friday, April 13, 2018

Sermon: Rav, Shmuel and Martin Luther King

delivered at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Lawrence on April 8, 2018 
Today I want to talk about two events that took place last week. The first is Passover and the 2nd was the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. King. Hopefully at the end I'll be able to bring the two pieces together.
So Passover is the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, the end of slavery and the beginning of freedom. I say the beginning of freedom because although in one very important way the Israelites are freed – they are no longer in servitude – in another way they are just getting started.
The haggadah – the ritual guide to the seder service – talks about a conversation between two rabbis, Shmuel and Rav. They're study buddies, and in the rabbinic tradition argumentation is an important means of getting at spiritual truth. So the question is, is slavery in the Exodus story a physical thing or a spiritual thing? Are we talking about actual, physical slavery – working without recompense – or are we talking about spiritual slavery, which Rav says is idol worship that our ancestors did before they came to the realization of the one God. And of course the answer is, both.

Sermon: Civility is Not Enough

delivered at Shawnee Mission UU on Feb. 18, 2018 and at First Congregational in Manhattan on March 18, 2018 
I see political activity as part and parcel of my spiritual practice, and I also have a tendency to self-righteousness.
But with those caveats - I have an aversion to the word “civility.” This idea has been around a while. It was a big part of the appeal of Barack Obama during his first run in 2008. “We don't have red states and or blue states, we have the United States,” he famously said.
I see it around quite a bit. It's based on the idea that America is super-partisanized, that we all live in our little self-thinking bubbles, and that we tend not to have friends across the partisan line. The answer to this, so the thinking goes, is civility. It usually means, trying to understand the other person's perspective, to treat their beliefs with respect. Sometimes it means, recognizing what we have in common as people underneath, or perhaps above, our political differences.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book review: Reclaiming Hope by Michael Wear

Michael Wear is an Evangelical Christian who was a college student in Washington, DC, when he heard Barack Obama give his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and decided to hitch himself to Obama's wagon. Wear served a role in faith outreach in the 2008 campaign and then in the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during Obama's first term. He returned to do faith outreach in the 2012 campaign and then left Obama-ville.

This book is his account of that time. It's part memoir, part political analysis, and part religious witness.

There's no question that, especially in the early days, Wear was a true believer. What appealed to him about Obama, as to so many of us, was the candidate's steadfast commitment to bringing all sides together. One of Obama's greatest moments, Wear says, was his invitation to Evangelical super-pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his first inaugural. There was significant blowback among Obama's staff and supporters to this choice because, like most Evangelicals, Warren has a poor record on LGBT issues; but Obama said, early and often, that just because we can't agree on everything doesn't mean we have to oppose each other on everything. And Warren spoke.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Guns, Violence and Nonviolence

The mission of my organization is based on Dr. King's three evils, which he called racism, materialism and militarism. I frame the third as “violence/militarism.” This is what I say about it in my “stump speech”:

Violence/ militarism. In the Riverside Church sermon Dr. King said that a society that “A nation that continues year after year to spend more on defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Is any of this different today? We as a society more or less agree that the Iraq war was a mistake, but when a new threat is perceived the first instinct is to address it with military means. We never really process or absorb our mistakes, we just repress them and go on to make the next one.

Dr. King said that the biggest purveyor of violence in the world was his own government. This is an issue we tend to ignore, but with a military budget the size of the next 7 countries combined, and 800 military bases in 70 countries, we have a lot of hammers with which to look for nails. 5 Trillion dollars in war spending over the past 1 years. Couldn't all that money be put to much better use fixing our roads and bridges, educating and feeding our children, and building our clean energy future?

And so without, so within. We live in a society racked with fear of each other, and armed to the teeth. Anyone without a criminal record – and some with – can carry any weapon they want anywhere they want, without training or permit or consideration for those who don't want to live in such a society. And as the statistics show, the “good guy with a gun” myth is just that – a myth – and weapons are far more likely to be used for domestic violence or suicide than for self- or home protection.

Kansas has the laxest gun laws in the country, and to this we have just added the ability to carry concealed firearms – without training or permit – on to our public college and university campuses.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Civility is not our biggest problem

While colleagues posted their sermons about the political dangers we're in, about the re-appearance of Charlottesville-level racism/anti-semitism, or about kneeling NFL players and Black Lives Matter, the rabbi where I go gave us a sermon on civility.

He didn't use that word. He talked about how the fabric of our political culture has been torn, and how we have to put it together, not just by sewing it, but by reweaving it, His example was a member of the congregation who was a Hillary supporter living next door to a Trump supporter, but even though they disagreed about politics they had each other's garage-door codes and this one gave a eulogy at the funeral of the other one. This was held up as a model of how we should behave, and the rabbi suggested a series of coffees with him that we should attend with someone with whom we disagree politically.

Where to start? The example given is of two middle-aged, middle-class white guys who live next to each other in privileged Johnson County. This isn't a very wide sample, to say the least. The framing posits politics as rather a hobby, or an identity marker, and not really that important in the scheme of things – or, not as important as neighborliness.

But for some people, politics really matters. Let's take the examples that I used before: Trump really is tearing the country apart, and there really are people who either don't care about that or are okay with it as long as their team is winning. There really are black people getting killed by police almost every day. There really is a resurgence of the hard right in this country. These things will not be addressed by coffee shop tete a tetes. What they will be addressed by is people organizing to oppose them. But even the idea that they should be opposed is not found in this framework.

I personally don't think the problem is civility. Or maybe it is, but in the other direction – the need for (white) people to get along with each other has meant that the political window has been moved farther and farther right with hardly a fight – lest we be accused of incivility – with all the problems that this has caused, including the horrible mess we're in now.

I am not suggesting that we would be better off if the two Johnson County men were at each other's throats. Everybody has to decide in each situation how much politics to inject into each relationship. But I think of many churches or small towns I've visited where people don't speak up for justice for fear of rocking the boat. That's how injustice continues – or gets worse. To suggest that this is a model for the re-weaving of the social fabric is, I think, both false and ill-advised.

The world is burning – in some cases, quite literally. I would hope that that, rather than manners, would be worth discussing on Rosh Hashanah morning.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Book Review: In Search of the Lost Chord

In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea 
by Danny Goldberg 
Akashic Books 

Some years ago I did a review for Jewish Currents of a three-volume study of Jews in the creative arts. The chapter on the Jewish contribution to rock music was written by Danny Goldberg, and I found it the most annoying chapter in the book. He basically said, “I’m not just going to give you a list of who in rock music is Jewish” and then proceeded to do just that. It read like a laundry list.

I have a longstanding interest in the Sixties, including hippie culture, so when I heard Goldberg interviewed on Raghu Markus’ podcast about his new book, In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea I went and got it. After about 30 pages of his comprehensive chronology style, I was remembering what annoyed me about his writing the first time.

However, the book grew on me. What felt in 15 pages lazy and superficial, in 300 pages felt well-researched and wide-ranging. Goldberg basically takes the chronology of events in 1967 and give brief accounts of them: the people involved, the process that led to them, how they were covered in the press, how they affected the people involved, etc. Often this is covered in one paragraph; for more significant events more space is given, but no account lasts more than a couple of pages.  

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Some thoughts on antisemitism

On August 11, far right activists marched by torchlight through Charlottesville, Virginia. Their action, which was explicitly antisemitic, threatened worshipers at the small synagogue there that my brother and his family belonged to until very recently. Far-rightists marching by torchlight past a synagogue has traumatic historical resonances for any Jew. It led to a spate of “why do they hate us?” articles and a reminder from even the most progressive Jews that antisemitism is not a thing of the past.

And yet - I'm in my mid-50s and I can safely say that antisemitism has never played a major role in my life. There have been maybe half-a-dozen incidents of name-calling, but that's pretty much it. I have never lost a job opportunity or an apartment because of it, never been excluded from a social event or public accommodation, never been targeted by police. Even today, when I travel around parts of Kansas with few or no Jews and am explicitly political, there's remarkably little anti-Jewish feeling, and what there is, is oblique. (People's personal hatreds don't matter so much as long as they're too embarrassed to share them publicly and have no power over the lives of those they hate.) I have never feared to wear a kippah in public. Most rightwing political and religious figures in Kansas are Israelphilic, which, whatever it may be, is not traditional Jew-hatred.

In the eyes of America, I'm white. I know this is so because, inter alia, I never get unduly hassled at traffic stops. Most white Jews can “pass” with no effort at all, and many jettison their Jewish identities completely. It hardly needs to be said that this is an option that American blacks don't have.