Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Why You Should Read The Gadfly Papers

I can't call myself a Christian, even though it is the religion of my youth, and in spite of the fact that I resonate with the Christian story, its scriptures, and many of its followers. I'm comfortable in most Christian churches. But I differ from the orthodox faith in a few important ways. I don't believe we are meant to worship Christ. I don't believe that the Resurrection and all that has been attached to it (Heaven, Hell, sin, etc) is meant to be taken literally. But most of all, having studied World Religions, visited Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish countries and places of worship, I don't believe that God as I understand God would select only people who say the right words into God's chosen people, and into Heaven. Unitarian Universalism, even with its many flaws and foibles, is my chosen faith tradition.

"UUs", as we call ourselves, are famous for three things (at least): our social justice work and witness; our radical acceptance and affirmation of all people; and our Humanist leanings, which "counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of Science..." (UU Sources). We're also colloquially known as the church for atheists, the "No Hell" people, and, most recently, the Side With Love people, or just the Love People. Each of these monikers is partly true and partly an over-simplification. Historically, we are the far left wing of the Reformation, but we are not unlike Reform Jews and liberal Protestants, we have lots of members and ministers who are theistic and Christian, in addition to atheists, agnostics, and Buddhists. And more. I love that we are unafraid to critique ourselves and unflinching about our devotion to service and justice. So many UUs are fearless crusaders for the disenfranchised and the marginalized that we sometimes think of ourselves, when asked what we stand for, as the 19th Century Universalists claimed, people who  "don't stand; we move".

So for these reasons, and many others, I have experienced my fellow UUs to be unflinching in our examination of facts before we make statements or jump on any bandwagon. It can make congregational life very contentious at times. And, denominational life, too.

I expect the people who call themselves UUs to employ both hearts and minds when responding to events, whether local or international. I am continually amazed and inspired by the courage and conviction of my fellow UUs and especially my colleagues. As I write this, I know Unitarian Universalists are taking direct action against the migrant "camps" on our Southerm border, and even getting arrested for helping and offering food and water to undocumented immigrants. As Roe v. Wade gets eroded by state legislatures and is clearly under threat nationally, UUs have stepped up in droves to be clinic escorts and to march and petition for laws that protect women and freedom of choice.

I'm troubled, though, by recent trends in our faith tradition. I will start by saying that I may be wrong, I certainly have been wrong in the past, and I will readily admit that my words were misguided if that proves to be true. Here are my main concerns:

* UUs everywhere, but particularly clergy and particularly on social media, are afraid to speak their truth. Their fear is due to their perception that not only will they be shamed, shouted down, and piled upon metaphorically, but that they may actually lose their standing with our association and consequently their livelihoods. This I know for certain.

* When our UUA President Peter Morales was forced/encouraged to resign two years ago, along with at least four other ministers in leadership positions, a narrative was begun that because a woman who identifies as a POC (Person of Color) was not selected for a position, and for many other reasons, including that People of Color felt unwelcome and marginalized in our churches and fellowships and that it was time for White UUs (but especially white, cis-gendered and male UUs) to be quiet and listen. I know this happened, although some may quibble over my phrase forced to resign, I heard and saw enough to believe this. I also believe that UUs who are persons of color do feel both marginalized and tokenized in our culture. I've seen it first hand in my 25 years of ministry.

* Likewise, UU transpeople, UUs with disabilities, and UUs with other historically disempowered identities became emboldened to speak out and were heard. The UUA Board even pledged to raise (and fulfilled that pledge at our recent General Assembly) five million dollars for the BLUU (Black Lives of UU) organization. This would not only give BLUU access to resources they could use for attracting more POC and also for outreach to the POC in our congregations, it appeared to me (admittedly a distant observer) to help the UUA and many in leadership feel somewhat less guilty about what has come to be called the Black Empowerment Controversy of the 1960s. I believe this to be factual.

So, why am I troubled, and what does all of this have to do with The Gadfly Papers, distributed at "G.A./GA" (General Assembly)?

These new ways of understanding ourselves as part of white supremacy culture and of re-aligning our assets and resources to help ameliorate that, have led to push back and resistance on the part of (some) clergy, and many people in congregations. That is as it should be! We are, after all, UUs, and we question everything. We are also human, and with that comes resistance to change, fear of the unknown, and typical human foibles, like needing time to learn, and being dense, and trying to "look" adequate. Of course we are. I have said to congregations I've served that they should expect struggle and dissent, and that the Church is less a place to get your ego assuaged and your pre-existing beliefs affirmed than a laboratory for learning to be more human. I've had to re-adjust my thinking and my attitude numerous times. There is no shame in being wrong.

What troubles me is not the fact that UUism is changing and as ever, is somewhat ahead of the curve of society in general. (Who was it that said UUs are the people who are always reading the next page? I love that) . What bothers me is that so many of us have either left the Chat groups we used to love on Facebook, have withdrawn from groups and associations we once took part in, and have, in some cases, left UUism altogether, not because we don't agree with the ultimate goal of these changes in our culture, but because we are so intimidated and feel so unable to engage in the conversation, at all. We are afraid to say one wrong word.

The Gadfly Papers is one person's well-researched (although his sources and methods have been questioned) and carefully constructed argument (some question that, too) about what he perceives as a culture of shaming, shunning, and alienating anyone who does not go along with the words and the narrative that has been given. The reason I started by explaining why I'm not Christian is that, to me, UUs are the people who live in THIS world, doing good and fighting injustice as best as they can, NOT people who have said some magic words of a creed, and are therefore among the "elect". Most of us have been shamed and shunned  for practicing and sharing this faith. We look to our fellow UUs to help us evolve with good humor, acceptance, and respect.

I've now read The Gadfly Papers twice, the second time trying to see the essays from the perspective of those who feel harmed by their publication and by their distribution. I will likely read them a few more times. But I'm UU. Just reading them wasn't enough. I saw a comment claiming that one of Todd's sources, "The Coddling of the American Mind..." had been discredited and debunked. I looked it up and found it had been a bestseller, had been given 5 stars on the website, and had been nominated by the New York Times as one of the best non-fiction books of that year. I followed through by looking up other resources he used. I've read all of the responses that I have seen, and I list them below.

 I saw a reference to someone I had known years ago, in my early ministry. He (Mel Pine, a UU from VA who has now left the denomination) wrote a column after the resignation of Peter Morales, UUA President, and questioned the means by which it occurred. I then saw a 17-minute video made by a leader of BLUU, calling this (now seventy-something) man a "fuck-shit" and his whole column "shit", and then equating him with acts of racism that had occurred in his county, as if he were guilty of them just be being there. Video links here    (since yesterday, when I saw the full 17-minute video, and had to listen on earphones because it was full of the F-word and other language, and my 14 year old was nearby..I've been blocked, and can not see it.) She also physically threatened him in a Facebook post. I know how he felt, because the same person wrote very nasty comments on my homepage (I've since de-friended her). More on this here.

Since you may not be able to see the video (removed after being up for two years) here's a bit of humor at the expense of its creator. Daily Show clip

I do wonder why the 300 ministers who want to see Todd Eklof face consequences are OK with this blog post written by a UU minister, in which she admits she does not know him, but calls him a white supremacist, abhorrent, and his writings 'fuckery'. Read it here

Although it's far from true that everyone who is against The Gadfly Papers is being nasty and shaming both the author and anyone who is seen as aligned with him, many, many are. And that appears to be okay with my colleagues.. I am actually the cheese who stands alone here, because I think he had the right to write them and to distribute them. I can't even begin to count the number of pamphlets, broadsides and even books I've been handed at GA. He says he had hoped to start a dialogue, and instead he's having hellfire rained upon him. A minister who commented on my post of the newspaper article about him said his acts were evil. Others called it ego-driven, manipulative, a stunt, and dishonest. He dropped a bomb and ran  was one comment. As I wrote this, another minister called him hurtful, clueless, and appalling. (this after I explicitly asked people NOT to leave personal attacks, but to go directly to him).

Letters have been written and signed calling for his resignation. One person said they hoped he didn't get away without facing consequences; another said Oh, no, he won't. Presently Todd, whom I've called a friend/colleague, although we've been out of touch since he left KY, is deeply chagrined and in pain. Yes, he knew what he was saying was controversial and he'd be attacked, but he had no idea it would be so swift and so merciless(only a few people claim to have read the whole thing; many refuse to buy it and help promote the book, even though it's 2.99 on Kindle,  and believe me, I'm a writer... he'd be lucky to recoup the costs of printing it). What he's not doing is gloating, which a reliable source told me they saw too much of among his adversaries. I also saw comments saying it would take years to unravel the harm he and the book had caused.

So, I'm left with more questions than answers: if his thesis and his supporting documents, anecdotes, and arguments are so wrong, what's the big deal? Why not ignore him and the book, and let it fizzle out?  UUs are smart and savvy; they can think for themselves.

Why are ministers signing a letter condemning the book in the strongest terms when they have read none, or 5 lines, or 20 pages, or as a few people said, "I don't need to read it; the titles were enough". Or, "I won't read it"? (I'm not mad at my colleagues; I choose to believe, as I always have, that they are overwhelmingly loving, honest, and exceptionally dedicated humans).Indeed, I acknowledge that new evidence or facts may cause me to change my mind entirely about the book.

But I imagine some are mad at me, for signing the "Clergy Letter" , for asking people to at least read Todd's book before condemning it (and him) and may even call me racist or worse. I'm not going to talk about the 25 years ministry I've devoted to anti-racism, because the reply of some will be (as it was to Mel Pine) that it's just evidence that I'm a white savior, or a hypocrite. I will say that I have a disability (chronic daily migraines) and I'm raising a child, family member who is autistic. Hence, I resonate with a sensitivity to how people say things and what they do. Seth's 14 years have been a long story of micro-aggressions, exclusion, and stereotyping, much of it from UUs. So, yes, I can relate, if only marginally, to the urge to be angry, demand justice, and look for someone or something to blame. But there is no "one" to blame. Can we try to work together, believing that people will come around?

Maybe Todd made a gross miscalculation by using GA, a GA in which the new direction for our faith was being held up, a GA held on the 50th anniversary of the Black Empowerment Controversy , to publicize his treatise. Maybe he was wrong to employ terms like PC Culture, Call-out Culture, Virtue signaling and  safetyism, terms that are often used to disavow and defuse legitimate movements and arguments. If he is wrong, can he be forgiven?

The current narrative is that Todd was asked to meet with Right Relations team members to discuss his book, and would not. He says he refused to do so, upon advice, without a Good Officer, and was asked to leave GA. Since the Assembly was held in Spokane, where he is the UU minister, this was swift and harsh punishment. But I've also heard that other ministers, some of whom signed a clergy letter (link above) responding to the proposed guidelines changes for our Ministerial Association, were asked not to lead workshops at GA or Ministry Days because of their association with the letter. Whence comes this ethic of punishment and scolding?

Are UUs expected to be automatically "woke", aware of anything they might say, anxious and self-censoring, and fearful of making a misstep? What kind of faith is that?

And what kind of justice is it if all you've done is make people afraid to speak up?

I became a UU in Cherry Hill, NJ, not long after our initial Welcoming Congregation workshops were launched, and I attended a training with Rev. Scott Alexander, who authored the workbook. He said that day, "You never change people by should-ing all over them." What can we glean from that?

As a child from a family where alcoholism was rampant and charity rare, I am somewhat conflict-averse. But mostly, I recoil from situations and people who use shaming, bullying, and metaphorical finger-shaking to force their ways upon me. UUism needs to evolve, and it will. Perhaps we should try again, with love, acceptance and good faith, treating others as we would want to be treated?


"The Gadfly Papers" 3 part series by Rev. Scott Wells
here. Todd Eklof also writes a reply.

Statement by DRUUM

Statement by POCI(Persons of Color and Indigenous Persons)

UU Ministers' Response Statement

ARE letter (Allies for Racial Equality)


Chris Rothbauer Column

Tuesday, October 09, 2018



POEM, “Fault Line”
California is so many things, but it’s hard to think about California without thinking of earthquakes. The San Andreas Fault and its handiwork is plainly visible. Research has shown that the Southern segment, which stretches from Monterey  all the way down to the Salton Sea, is capable of a Richter scale 8.1 earthquake. An earthquake of that size on the Southern segment (which, at its closest, is 40 miles away from Los Angeles) would kill thousands of people in Los Angeles, San Bernandino, Riverside, and other areas, and cause hundreds of billions of dollars in property and economic damage.
Isn’t is great to live in such a safe part of the country?
Maybe..……in November 2008, The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that a serious earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone could result in "the highest economic losses due to a natural disaster in the United States," further predicting "widespread and catastrophic" damage across Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and particularly Tennessee, where a 7.7 magnitude quake or greater would cause damage to tens of thousands of structures affecting water distribution, transportation systems, and other vital infrastructure.[22] The earthquake is expected to also result in many thousands of fatalities.
Maybe, we all live on the edge, but Californians just can’t deny it.
As writer Alice Gregory notes upon moving East:
In California, you know when you’re burning. The brightness hurts, and when you close your eyes, you see red. The cliffs are high and jagged, the ocean smashes the shoreline, and landslides really can bring you down. There you are dwarfed and powerless. There are earthquakes; and mudslides; and for about three months of the year, entire regions of the state threaten to spontaneously combust. You wouldn’t dare sleep naked in California—you might need to run outside in the middle of the night, awakened to a rattling house and a mile-deep fissure in your front lawn.

We love to watch the Olympics for many reasons, not the least of which is that moment of suspense and the drama of the competitors’ expressions of joy or defeat. Vicariously, we relive our own near-triumphs and empathize, or imagine the glorious moment of victory and feel envy or admiration.  I love the synchronized diving and the moment the divers poise on the edge of the board. Every muscle of their bodies must be perfectly attuned, and to my way of thinking there must be a spiritual as well as a visual/mechanical connection in order for these dives to be so perfectly harmonized, almost poetic.
But there, as they pause on the edge, everything is potential: victory, defeat, even danger, and yet they voluntarily do this over and over again! So, of course, do we. (CIM)
Each day we arise is a journey to the edge.
We have only to acknowledge our own vulnerability to understand how close we really come.
And I am not just referring to our physical risk, although that is greater than we acknowledge, given the way we hurtle down the freeways at enormous speeds, live, eat, and move in ways that are contraindicated for longevity and comfort; and all of the many toxic and violent threats of modern life. I am also referring to what I am just going to call our own theological fault lines. Those potential rifts and separations that we pretend not to observe, that we neglect at our own expense. You can only live deceptively and selfishly for so long before it begins to consume you. You can see these upheavals in peoples bodies and faces.
When our USA men’s diving team was waiting to see whether they would win a Bronze medal or no medal at all, their reactions were so different. The younger man (age 17) was fraught with anxiety. The older of the two, who was actually more on the edge in this case, since he is 34 and would not have another chance to ever win a medal, was smiling. He looked okay to me. He stayed with the younger guy even though he preferred to not watch the other results.  I actually have no idea but I would like to think he was at peace because he had done his best. If you watched TV at all this week, you probably know, they did win the bronze medal.
Here is my point.
Whether we acknowledge it, live in denial, glimpse it from time to time, we are all living on the edge. There is really so little separating us from huge loss and disaster. (mention Colo, 4th anniversary of Knoxville, etc…) When we know this, we have a choice. We can  figuratively grasp and compete and consume one another, acting as if nothing but our own survival, winning, getting through,  surviving , the  “bottom line,” how things come out, and fixing everything that is wrong is really what it’s all about. You may have guessed by now that this is not what I would recommend theologically.
However, I see people acting this way every day, as if the product were more important than the person. Yes, even Unitarian Universalists. Sometimes, even myself.
But when I meditate upon the edge, the fault line of my own existence, spend some time in that land where we all live theologically, where no one finally survives, then I know the answer is love, respect and decency for every human I encounter, and I can return to other humans, regardless of how hungrily they may be licking their chops, with kindness and regard.
C.S. Lewis talks with one of his college students about
why we love if losing hurts so much, Lewis who lost his mother as a
child and his wife as an adult, responds, “I have no answers anymore,
only the life I have lived. Twice in that life...  I've been given
the choice: As a boy... and as a man. The boy chose safety. The man
chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's
the deal.”

Taking this to a universal level we can look to Joanna Macy, Buddhist teacher and eco-feminist. Macy states that feeling that one
must always be hopeful can wear a person out, but if we just show
up, and be present, do not pull down the blinds, the possibilities
exist that the world will heal. She believes there is a new paradigm
occurring that is known as “The Great Turning.” The Great Turning
is a concept she helped coin and define. Macy calls The Great
Turning “the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the
industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.” She
says it is a time of transition from a bankrupt political society,
which measures success by growth and profit and is being replaced
by moral strength, courage and creativity. The generations alive
today may not see a drastic change in their lives or environment
but the choices we make for profit today will effect the beings in
the next hundreds and thousands of years and determine whether
they will be born of sound mind and body.

So when we feel ourselves in those places of fear and anxiety, let us turn toward one another with love as the first principle, and we will find our way.
The shifting plates, the restive earth, your room, your precious life, they all proceed from love, the ground on which we walk, together.


 Son #2, BMX


When my sons were adolescents, and devoted to skateboards and BMX bikes, we visited a skateboard shop called "Failure". I can only guess that the young adults owners' parents told them it would be a failure, or they would, so they embraced the name. I got a bumper sticker, and it lived on my Toyota Camry for about 400,000 miles. That was about 25 years ago, and I'm still learning to embrace the idea. It's one of the most valuable disciplines I can practice.

Seen in D.C.


Last week, as the Senate moved toward confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh in spite of numerous accusations of sexual assault and his own partisan display, not to mention his erratic and unseemly behavior, my family and I were in Washington, DC. Seth knew some things about the story, having heard the news, asked questions, and listened to our conversations. Had we not left on Thursday morning. I might have taken him to see the protests as the Supreme Court, which were starting to accelerate. I can't think of a better way for him to have understood democracy--what's left of it.


I didn't believe from the beginning that the Democrats would succeed in keeping Kavanaugh off the bench. Even if, by some miracle, they had, Trump would have come up with another pick, just as far right, equally political, and the GOP would have been so angry and incensed that they may have fared worse in the midterm elections.

Furthermore, in spite of being a victim of sexual assault at a young age, I didn't share the outrage that I heard and saw from my (mostly white) women (mostly colleagues. In fact, it began to trouble me somewhat. Here's why:

* To dwell too heavily upon this insult to our sensibilities in which, yes, once again, women have been been devalued, disbelieved, and discounted, to the point where it brings out more rage than many other things which have happened of late raises the question: Is this white privilege?

* It's tone deaf. Knowing that these very assaults and insults have been the life story of women of color for generations, the alarm and horror, the outrage,  of white women, must look almost comical to women across the globe. Imagine a woman who has endured systematic rape and abuse with no recourse watching a smart, well-off, successful white woman testify that someone almost raped her in high school. Yes, I know myself that this can cause lifetime trauma. I don't question her testimony or her distress. I question our response, as white women.

The People of Failure and Hope

Back to failure. My Buddhist practice and study has taught me that impermanence is the only sure thing. All human endeavor will fail. None of us will conquer death, illness, or loss. Acknowledging the inevitability of failure is a spiritual process and practice that is not easy, but can bring equanimity.

On our trip to D.C., we visited the new African American Museum of Culture and History. It is a celebration of triumph and a mourning of loss and horror. The history of Black people in the U.S. is one of suffering, and also one of triumph.

cafe at National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The next day, Seth asked to go to the Holocaust museum. He said he knew about the Holocaust, and the museum exhibits were presented in a way that was less alarming than I might have expected. But he had not known that disabled people were the first to be destroyed. Many exhibits emphasized this, so it was impossible to downplay. He knew this would have included him. We skipped quite a bit of the latter part, but at the end, we had a chance to talk with a Holocaust survivor. I explained to her that Seth had Autism, and she talked with him at length, telling him that people could be mean, be bullies, but there were kind and good people too, and we must always be kind. He listened intently, and after, he cried and hugged me.

The Jews understood, and African Americans understand, after unfathomable loss, and total failure, something remains. Love, humanity, and goodness. Therein lies our faith. Some call it God.


I had so many dreams last week. I didn't recall all of the details, but I know they moved me forward. The failures and losses in my life have been so many of late that It has felt overwhelming. I've reached a point with all my siblings that to both be honest with them and continue a relationship seems impossible. I've had problems communicating with my grown children. I wrote years ago on this blog about how ministry is failure. The home our family has owned for 70 years is being sold in a manner that is duplicitous and hurtful. My chronic migraines have worsened in a way that has prevented me moving forward with writing and other projects. And, on this trip, we realized once again how limiting life with an Autistic child is. Seth really can't endure much in the way of travel, or sight-seeing, his interests are very narrow, and his anxiety is overpowering. All normal, but our expectations were far too high. Each of these things separately can be managed, but each is really beyond my control, and with the help of my dreams, the contemplation I had some time for, and some intervention from God, I came at last to a place I can be a peace with. I made decisions. I accepted finitude, loss, impermanence, and failure again.

Failure. Some call it surrender. Or, life.