Category Archives: Social Commentary

On Having Heroes Who Are Human

1234609_643104972388034_1378574855_nThese thoughts were inspired by and are a sort of response to this post.

I get quite a bit of pushback for being a fan of Amanda Palmer. I get long, impassioned comments from people who are concerned that I don’t understand how problematic she is. The nice ones assume I am simply uninformed, and spend thousands of words filling me in on all of her offenses. The list is long and to these people, unequivocal proof that Palmer is unworthy of anything but insult, derision, and dismissal.

Those are the nice ones. There’s another level of hatred that shows up in my comments or inbox when the person knows I’ m aware of the controversies but have refused to banish Palmer from my playlists, my Twitter feed, and my esteem. I imagine their eyes bulging with rage as they type out their accusations that I am a hypocrite, a shill, or that I must also be a __________________.  (Where the blank is filled with whatever label they use to dismiss her utterly; most often: racist, ableist, misogynist, narcissist.)

A few of her detractors are extremely committed: responding every time I mention her name, just to be sure I haven’t forgotten that she is problematic, persona non grata, enemy of justice, evil incarnate. They point out every possible thing I should be outraged by, every way my admiration for Palmer is complicit with her horribleness and contrary to their understanding of my values, especially my feminism, anti-racism, and anti-oppression commitments.

Not everything they say is wrong. There are times that Amanda Palmer makes me cringe. She’s done things that I wish she hadn’t. She’s said things that I strongly disagree with. She’s made mistakes. There have been times when I’ve been frustrated or disappointed with her comments or behavior. I’ve argued with her publicly about some of these things. And every disagreement has included the same word: (sometimes from her, sometimes from me) “Love.” And that’s why I’m still here, still a fan, still insisting that Palmer’s presence in my life, on the stage, and in the world is welcome.

This week, the controversy revolved around Jian Ghomeshi, the Canadian musician and broadcaster, who lost his job after allegations of sexual assault and abuse became public. Or rather, who released a statement saying he was unfairly fired because his sexual proclivities included what he called BDSM or “kink” practices. Over the course of several days, more and more women came forward (a total of nine, at last count) to corroborate the original charges: Ghomeshi had not sought consent and they had not given it, but had physically and sexually assaulted them.

What does this have to do with Amanda Palmer? Ghomeshi was one of the people Palmer had invited to participate in the book tour that begins next week.  In nearly every city where she will be reading and performing, she invited a guest to share the stage and add to the conversation. Ghomeshi had agreed to join her onstage in Toronto, the final night of the tour.

As soon as the story about Ghomeshi broke, people—fans, not detractors—began to ask Palmer to rescind the invitation.  Because it was so early, there was little more than the information that two women had come forward with accusations and Ghomeshi’s post explaining that his sexual practices were being purposely misconstrued and that he had lost his job as a result.  Palmer posted Ghomeshi’s explanation and, sticking to her oft-spoken commitment not to avoid controversy, tweeted that Ghomeshi would still be guesting.

All hell broke loose then, as fans, haters, commenters, and the media all jumped into the fray. People were hurt, people were angry, and some people were supportive—all in the midst of a rapidly changing situation.  By the time most people learned that of Palmer’s post, there were more and more women coming forward, corroborating the stories of abuse and providing disturbing details. The online media, always eager for a fight (and always happy to discredit a woman, especially a feminist) went live with stories in the tone of outrage and reproach.

I’ve been around long enough to see how the media portrays Palmer and these articles included all the same tropes. Palmer was narcissistic, out of touch, and happy to defend the powerful at the cost of her fans.  They quote essays and blog posts that “point out that Palmer seemed to be leaning toward believing Ghomeshi…” without mentioning that those conclusions were drawn from one comment made before the details of the allegations were known. The articles are mocking in tone, faulting Palmer for asking for time to review the facts, to read the comments from her fans, and consider her decision.

It always amazes me how the media insist on the using and reusing the same three ideas to dismiss Palmer.  In every article, she is out of touch with her fans, self-absorbed, and shallow.  Even when all the evidence is to the contrary, they trot out these same judgments. It doesn’t matter that Palmer was deeply invested in the conversation with her fans, reading and responding to comments online—she’s still out of touch because she didn’t reply enough.  It doesn’t matter that Palmer requested time to make a carefully considered decision—she’s shallow.  It doesn’t matter that she’s sharing the stage as often as possible on this book tour—she’s self-absorbed and narcissistic.

Had Palmer decided to go on with the show and keep Ghomeshi as a guest, I would have been disappointed and even angry. I would have seen it as a way that even Amanda Fucking Palmer sometimes gets it wrong and believes men more than women. I would have taken that as evidence of how insidious sexism is, how deeply the messages of rape culture and misogyny can be internalized. I would have asked her to reconsider.  And had she refused, I would have let my tickets to her shows go unused.

I respect Palmer’s decision, but there are many who are still angry. Mostly, they seem to be angry that she didn’t make the decision quickly enough. She did take some time—96 hours—to make her decision.  Some are even angrier that she mentioned her current project—a musical theater performance  at Bard College called The Bed Show—in her announcement. “Self-promotion!” they cry. Never mind that the show is relevant to both the topic and the timing of her decision.  Palmer has been in 12-hour tech rehearsals in preparation for The Bed Show to open this Wednesday. The show, according to Palmer, also delves into issues of abuse and rape culture.

Is Amanda Palmer perfect? No. And I am happy that she is not. While some want their role models to be perfect, I like mine to be human.  Part of what keeps me engaged with Palmer and her art and music is that she is transparent about her mistakes. Like any of us, she tries and fails and tries again to live up to her own ideals. Oh, and that’s another reason people are angry with her. She doesn’t just hold herself to high standards. She has, again and again, over the course of years, asked for people to be compassionate, civil, and refuse to be hateful. Some have confused this with tone policing.

Tone policing is a strategy used by the powerful to excuse and propagate oppression. When an oppressed person gets angry or is not grateful enough or kind enough to the oppressor, this “deficiency” is used as a reason to continue controlling them.  This excuses the abuses of the oppressed and is the key way that oppression is internalized. In its crudest form, it can be as simple as a woman coming to believe she deserves to be beaten because she was not nice enough to her abuser. In more complex situations, it is used to silence the naming of oppression by redirecting attention from what is being named (the abuse or oppression) to how it is being named. (with anger, rage, vitriol.)  Asking an oppressed person to “act nice” in response to their oppression or “be grateful” for what they do have is a strategy of shame and silence. It is real and it is wrong.

But Amanda Palmer’s request that discussion on her Twitter feed, blog, and Facebook page remain civil and not become hateful is NOT tone policing. The relationship Palmer has with her fans is not the relationship of oppressor to the oppressed, nor does she have the power to silence them.  (I suppose she could delete comments, but I’ve never known her to do so.) In addition, she didn’t ask anyone to refrain from expressing anger. In fact, she doesn’t demand anything. She simply states, “ i am *not* happy to see people flinging insults, using violent language and wishing harm on others.” She later writes, “may we all hold the space – in the physical world and on the internet – to take care of each other. we’re in this one together, friends. please don’t forget that.”

This isn’t an effort to silence anyone, but to embody what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught when he wrote, “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” I believe it’s possible—even necessary—for people to express anger, to disagree and debate, expressing their ideas and experiences powerfully without resorting to hate. In fact, I believe we need more debate, more public discussions—even arguments that fight the –isms that infect us all.  I’m all for impassioned discourse about ethics, values, and how to make the world a better place. Amanda Palmer has shown herself willing to have those hard discussions. She’s shown herself willing to change her mind. She just asks that we do without hate, and I can’t fault her for that.

REPOST–Cabaret Church: Why Amanda Palmer Makes Me Think About Church

AFP MKE PridefestI am a minister. Maybe that is why people give me strange looks when I tell them I am a big fan of Amanda Palmer. I guess the word “minister” conjures an image of uptight, scowling old men with nostrils permanently flared from sniffing out the faintest scent of the carnal.  When confronted by someone as free-spirited as Amanda—who is prone to displays of public nudity; uses the word “fuck” with both ease and power (it is, after all, her middle name); writes, sings and screams songs like “Do it With a Rock Star” and “The Killing Type;” and uses social media to share much of (if not every corner of) her mind—I guess I am supposed to immediately condemn her or run away screaming.

I may be expected to condemn, but instead I find myself drawn to Amanda Palmer’s work and her world. Her songs, her TED talk, her blog, her insistence on connection with her fans and even with her haters have all reinvigorated—resurrected, really—my passion for ministry and my vision of what liberal religious community can be.

Truth be told, I love all of it: the uninhibited self-expression; the nakedness of body, mind, and soul; the unabashed insistence that the power of art can change us and therefore change the world. “We are the Media!” Amanda Palmer sings.  I want to add: “And we are the Church!” Or maybe: “We are the Sacred! We are the Holy! We are Everything That Matters and everything beautiful and ordinary and amazing…

Amanda Palmer makes me think about church.  Yeah, church: the place where, for centuries, power and greed and transcendence and sin and art and ritual and life and death have been playing their parts in a grand mythic drama. Church: the place where people try to work out what it means to be human and how to make life more graceful and meaningful.  Church: the one thing that has both  saved my life and broken my heart so completely that I ran away screaming in pain and fury. And yes, church. The community that always draws me back and helps me recognize and serve something larger than my own ego, something like Hope.  Even though I am often frustrated at the forms the institutional church takes, I can’t shake my conviction that if we don’t despair, we can return the church to being a catalyst for empowerment, inspiration, justice, and liberty in our own hearts and in the world.

Alfred North Whitehead called God “the poet of the world.” The central story in every religious tradition is always the story of creation: God dividing light from darkness, the Goddess giving birth, or Turtle rising from the primordial ooze with the muddy earth on its back.  These primal stories are the centerpiece of religious myth not only because we humans are eternally curious about our origins, but because the ability to create is and has always been considered sacred.  For centuries, if you were looking for art you went to church, where poets, painters, sculptors, musicians and composers were lauded for their ability to make a way for the sacred to enter the ordinary world. Beauty and creativity were portals to the holy.

Amanda Palmer’s work is a torrid, sweaty, sex-in-public affair with creativity.  In the Punk Cabaret story of creation, creatrix and creature refuse to be separated by theological hierarchies, and are instead consenting partners in an ecstatic and slightly dangerous bump and grind. Bodies are celebrated, even flaunted, without embarrassment.  After all, if it weren’t for our bodies, how would we create or experience all this beauty?

This, for me, is an awakening. For decades I have struggled with the ugly dichotomy that separates body from spirit and declares the material, the physical, the carnal to be dirty and sinful.  I was moved to tears when I read Walt Whitman’s declaration, “If anything is sacred, the human body is!”  That sacredness is too easy to forget, yet listening to Amanda Palmer’s music I feel the urge to move rise up in me and am reminded that my earliest spiritual or religious memories are of dancing.  In dance class or at home alone with my record player, I experienced my whole heart and body absorbed in one transcendent “Yes!” I knew, as a child, that both the dance and the dancer were holy. I knew that I was inseparable from The Sacred.

I know, of course, that religion—especially Western Christianity—is responsible for much of this denigration of the body. I know that the unholy desire for power and empire led to the creation of systems and theologies that dismiss some bodies—brown bodies, female bodies, queer bodies, disabled bodies—as worthless and only to be controlled. I see the results of this thinking in policies that demean and punish those who wear these bodies. I see this and I know that many will be unable to believe that religion, complicit in so much evil, is worthy of anything but disdain. I know. I see. I tremble.

And yet I cannot just walk away. I keep being drawn back. Or, to use an older term: I keep being called back.

You see, I didn’t go into ministry because I wanted to reenact dusty rituals, all the while keeping my hair neat and my overcoat buttoned.  I didn’t go into ministry to write twenty-minute essays more conducive to checking one’s watch than to checking in with the state of one’s soul.  I didn’t go into ministry to be considered an employee with a three word job description: keep people happy.

I went into ministry because I long for transformation. I long for revolution. I am called to make this world better and to heal what brokenness I can.  I am called to help create communities that empower all of us to encounter and respond to the All that is bigger than any of us, bigger than all of us, and bigger even than anything we can imagine. I am called to look for and help create communities that are engaged in the work of the spirit together. Communities that are a lot like the crowds at  Amanda Palmer concerts or the people telling their truths and tweeting love and support for one another on a Friday night, tagging Amanda in every post.

I imagine a church where every sweaty, glitter-drenched, dancing body is welcome. I imagine a church that can be loud and bold and angry when necessary. I imagine a church where we notice the many who say, “No one sees me,” and take time to stop, look them in the eye and say, “We see you.”  I imagine a church where everyone is invited to not only attend the show, but to be part of it—to engage soul-deep in the art of living an authentic, embodied, meaningful life.

That’s the church I imagine, thanks to Amanda Palmer. That’s Cabaret Church.

Looking for the Love‬

news_loveandjusticeToday is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and the second day of the “Thirty Days of Love” sponsored by our Association. I’ve waited until today to address something that happened just about a month ago.  I waited to make sure I wasn’t over-reacting. I waited, thinking maybe I’d feel better as time passed. I waited to give us all some time to calm down.  Just under a month ago,  the Unitarian Universalist Association posted a holiday greeting on Facebook that led to a long painful discussion.

At least, it was painful for me. So painful that I had to consider whether Unitarian Universalism is a place where I can or should continue to pour my energies, ideas, and hard work.  That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not.

The words and image chosen for the greeting are not the primary issue for me. Yes, I understand the intention was to remind Unitarian Universalists that the most important thing about the holidays is not the gifts and materialism. But I also understand that those words and the accompanying image left some feeling painfully excluded.

Yes, Unitarian Universalists are, in general, well-educated and economically privileged. But there are those among us who do not have what they need. There are also people like the woman I sat with in my office on December 23 who wept because she could not find a way to give her children the Christmas she felt they deserved: no tree, no big dinner, and most painfully for her, not a single gift. She chose to pay the rent and keep the heat on, but doing so made her feel like a failure and she knew her children would be disappointed.

The greeting also uses language that assumes that all of us can see, hear, and embrace with arms of love.  Some say the language is simply metaphor, and it may be. But in a world where barriers to inclusion and microagressions are an everyday thing for folks with disabilities, exclusive metaphors still sting.

When they are coming from your faith community–a community that says it is working to be inclusive and counter-oppressive–the sting becomes a burn. (This is something I’ve learned from my experience as a trans* person and by listening to others in my beloved community who struggle to be included–let alone, celebrated–in their fullness as human beings with abilities and disabilities.)

But it was not the greeting that broke my heart.

After the greeting was posted, a few brave souls pointed out that it may have been hurtful and/or excluded some folks in our beloved community. They did so gently and carefully, being clear that they knew that whoever had posted the greeting did not intend to exclude or hurt anyone.

And then all hell broke loose. And my heart broke.

First, Peter Morales, the President of our Association of Congregations replied:

I am sorry you were offended by the UUA’s Facebook page posting… However, I believe you misread both the intent and the content of the posting and that your criticisms are misdirected and counterproductive.

(I’ve deleted a story from President Morales’ childhood about being poor and information about how the new UUA headquarters will be accessible to people with disabilities.)

…What troubles me about your letter is that it falls into a pattern of what I have called UU’s who arrive “pre-offended.” The result is a kind of bullying that ends up having people become so cautious that our discourse is trivialized. To say that we need vision is not to demean those who are blind. To say that we should stand on the side of love does not disrespect those who cannot stand. To say that we should listen deeply does not marginalize those with hearing disabilities. Are we to avoid singing “Guide My Feet” in fear that someone without feet might be offended?

I do not believe we should ever give offense deliberately. And, yes, we should be thoughtful and sensitive. However—and this is critical—we should not take offense when none was intended. I rarely go to a major meeting of UU’s when someone does not come to me in righteous anger about some imagined offense. It is counter productive. Frankly, it is silly.
There are real issues we must confront together. I am convinced that economic inequality does enormous emotional damage and threatens our democracy. We need to work together to make our congregations and our society more open and accessible.

I look forward to working with you and others to confront real issues of injustice and marginalization that affect thousands. I suggest we spend more energy taking action and less taking offense.

The scolding, paternalistic tone of President Morales’ words was the first (and deepest) wound. Calling people “pre-offended” is to say that no offense was given and the critique  offered is a figment of the imaginations of those who are “too sensitive”–an age-old way of silencing people who dare to speak up and name oppression.

President Morales continues to  dismiss his critics (or critics of the greeting since the response to the greeting was never aimed at Morales personally) calling their critique a “complaint” that is misdirected, counter-productive, and a form of bullying. He admits that people approach him all the time in “righteous anger at some imagined offense.” Then he tells us what he really thinks: “Frankly, it’s silly.”

Sadly, President Morales is not the only one. After he posted his response, hundreds of people chimed in. It was like a floodgate opened and instead of compassion and love for those who felt excluded and hurt, what came pouring out was defensiveness, dismissal, and anger. And that was when I began to wonder, “Am I on the wrong team?” Are we so invested in our own culture, structures, and self-importance that we can’t even listen when someone says, “Hey, that hurt.  Ouch.”?

The holiday greeting was a relatively small thing: a picture and some words. Yes, those words were written by a beloved UU leader. And the picture is pretty and represents something we’re proud of: a grassroots effort to create images for social media that carry our values and message into the world.   When people critique  a well-intentioned greeting, it’s painful. When they point out that our words (and images) may have effects that we did not intend, it can be frustrating. But isn’t this exactly the kind of thing we have to be willing to do if we are to  live out our commitments?

Our Association has adopted Global Ends, which is a fancy way of saying Big Goals that are supposed to guide all that we do. One of those Ends is:

  • Congregations and communities engage in partnerships to counter systems of power, privilege and oppression.

I can’t help but wonder if we mean it.  Today, many of us are quoting Dr. King. But what about tomorrow? During the Thirty Days of Love, we’re studying up on multiculturalism, but is our beloved community truly welcoming to all? And if it is not, are we willing to change? Next time someone asks us to look at our words and consider that they might not be as loving as we thought, how will we respond? Will we accuse them of being the problem and dismiss them as silly? Will we tell them we’re too busy doing the real work of justice to be bothered?

Is that what we mean by Love?

The chance might be here already.  Today,  a Unitarian Universalist posted a lovely reflection called Love means it’s time to kill your darlings. How will we respond?

Exhausted With a Nagging Pain in the Heart

I woke up early this morning. I tried to go back to sleep for about an hour, but couldn’t manage it, though I am exhausted. All morning I’ve been yawning and my eyes feel like someone scrubbed them with hot desert sand, but I cannot sleep. I cannot find a way to unclench myself, to relax, to surrender.

Fear.

That’s not all. There is this nagging pain in my chest. Not the kind that makes you think, “heart attack!” but the kind that feels like there is a big soft lump wedged between my ribcage and my skin. It is a lump of tears that will not come, that I am afraid will come. Not the pretty trickle of a tear from the corner of an eye, but big, messy, ugly sobs with tears that run and puddle and soak the shirt and leave stains that don’t easily wash away.

Lamentation.

Fear and Lamentation have been my companions since yesterday morning when Chelsea Manning announced her new name and revealed her true self to the world. There was not even a full second to digest the news and wish her well before the first attack was unleashed. It was a relatively small one, just a slight pause and pointed emphasis on the word “her.” Just a pause and inflection that clearly  said, “I have to use this pronoun now, but I am only doing it because I’ve been told to.”

But now, twenty-four hours later, I am exhausted from carrying the sadness, physically worn from the way my body tightens and cringes as I read the increasingly ugly attacks. This morning, the lump of tears grew harder and more angry as I read that media outlet after media outlet is refusing to use feminine pronouns for Ms. Manning.

The New York Times has stated that they intend to change to feminine pronouns gradually because they don’t want to confuse their readers, even though it seems that making the change and being consistent from now on would be less confusing. NPR has announced it knows Ms. Manning’s gender better than she does herself. They have stated they won’t honor her identity until she is “physically female.” Ironic, since while she is imprisoned, she will not be given access to the medical care and treatment she needs to do that. Less reputable “news” sources will undoubtedly bring up her transgender identity for years–maybe forever–as “evidence” that Ms. Manning is “unstable” or “dishonest” or “lacks integrity.”

After sixteen years, I am just deeply tired of the dismissal and judgement and hatred. Even more, I am tired of watching my trans* siblings–especially my sisters of color–being dragged through hell in the media and on the streets. I am tired of watching us die, sometimes in brutal moments of extreme violence and sometimes the death-of-a-thousand-cuts of having our truth, our being, our bodies, and our lives devalued and ridiculed.

Today, I will do my best to carry on–to attend to my personal and professional responsibilities, meet deadlines, care for the people in my congregation–while bent under the weight of Fear and Lamentation, companions that I did not choose and only want to leave me–and all of us–alone.

I am not sure if this blog is dead…

Somehow, I lost the inspiration to write here. I’m not sure why. Most of my online presence now is on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.  The thought of writing a post here feels like writing essays—-so many words–and that just seems dull. I’ve gotten used to the shorter formats and love the challenge of distilling my thoughts into 140 characters or an image. I save my long form thoughts for sermons in my beautiful congregation.

I also have a secret project. It’s secret because some might find it too edgy, even offensive. Mostly because it does not avoid “the F word.” In fact, it reclaims it with some joy and abandon. It is also an intentional effort to create a space that celebrates the intersections of art, spiritual community, and resistance.  And to bring the joy and pain and chaos and mess of those things together, hoping to find something beautiful and relevant there.

If you promise not to get angry about the language or the unapologetic interruption of oppression, or offended by  the celebration of all things embodied (including all kinds of bodies, tattoos, sex…) then come to The Cabaret.

Thoughts on Justice GA 2012 in Phoenix, AZ

One World UnborderedIt probably doesn’t go without saying that the following are my own thoughts and do not represent the UUA, the GA Planning Committee, the Arizona Immigration Ministry, The Accountability Group or anyone else.

People are beginning to notice and respond to the Justice GA Schedule and grid (available here.)

Since I was at the meeting where the schedule was created, I want to ask you to think about a few things as you begin to respond:

First, be gentle in your critique. This schedule is the result of a lot of good people working hard together to respond to a wide variety of needs and expectations.  We made a very clear decision to privilege the needs of the local community and let THEM tell us what they need. The form the schedule takes reflects that. It’s more about the local community’s needs than our hopes and expectations.

Second, I learned at the meeting that there are not (at this point) a whole lot of ways that 3000-4000 UUs can be truly helpful to the local community. There are many ways that trying to meet OUR need to do something that we recognize as service/witness would tax the local community’s resources. We can’t just descend on them. And the amount of organization and resources that a huge service project would demand would actually be a drain on the limited resources of the very people we hope to serve. Knowing this, we’ve tried hard to find ways that  we can use our presence, power, and resources to do things that are truly helpful.  This GA will offer many ways to be of service, but they may not look like we may have expected.

Third, (and I’m not sure I know how to say this gently) we have A LOT to learn. The amount of education and preparation is very intentional and is also a response to the local community wanting us to truly understand not just the issues they face, but the history behind those issues. Education is perhaps THE very most powerful thing we can do to help–not only the Arizona migrants–but people back home, who also face the consequences of this history in ways both similar and dissimilar.  If we can get thousands of UUs to grapple with the history/theology of the Doctrine of Discovery OR to understand the basics of coalition building and community organizing OR to feel like they can help make a difference with the privilege and power they have…well, we’d have accomplished a lot.

Fourth, there will be a lot of choices built into this GA. People will be able to choose how much service they can do, how much history they want to learn, how many practical “take it home” skills they learn, etc.  The “grid” can’t reflect that very well. But what I heard among the very key people at the planning meeting was a deep desire to allow attendees as much flexibility as possible to learn, reflect, and act.  All of that, of course, takes place within the constraints of time, space, and available resources.

Truly, I was amazed by the commitment, dedication, realism, and vision of the planners. This GA won’t be perfect. It probably won’t be like you imagine it. But it will be a very heartfelt effort to create something that helps create justice and truly partners with the people who need us in Arizona.

One of our partners in this work, B Loewe , Communications Director at National Day Laborer Organizing Network, started our time together with a reflection on three goals we might share for this experiment we call “Justice GA”:

1. Build power for the local communities by using our resources, privilege, and access (especially to the media) to draw attention to the struggle in Arizona and the deeper inequities and injustices it reveals.

2. Shrink disbelief among our own people and among people throughout this nation who think and say, “I just can’t believe our government would do these things” or “I didn’t know it was so bad.”

3. Enlarge compassion.

He reminded us that we are not expected to do a Justice GA perfectly, but we are committed to doing it in partnership with the people who invited us, with the people who have taken the risk to make it happen, and with each other.

Love Will Guide Us,

Sean