Friday, June 01, 2007

What to say, what to say...

My word! Like Tolkein said, it's dangerous business walking out your front door--you never know where the day will take you.

This whole thing has been my first introduction to the "UU Blogosphere", and a good reminder that the creative conflict inherent in forging and leading in liberal religion can be messy business. One point made by many folks I've talked to about this is how different the tenor of the conversation would have been had it been conducted face to face. With some trepidation, given the amount of misinterpretation, projection, and sensitivity that has characterized so much of this online conversation, I offer the following cartoon from Penny Arcade:

Just to reemphasize: I am not calling anyone a "fuckwad." I offer the above cartoon because: it's hilarious; and because it is a powerful explication of an internet-characterizing phenomenon. PeaceBang herself, over the course of the last few days, has said several times that blogs are not the forum for serious discussion of important issues. While I am of the opinion that the internet is what we make of it, I do agree with Rev. Weinstein that the medium has a way of compressing dialogue and conversation, and that the attraction of having an audience and relative anonymity (or at least absence of direct accountability) can create a sort of pipeline to snarkiness and careless wit, and compounded assumptions and misunderstandings, all of which are antithetical to deep, serious conversations.

Okay, enough meta. Rev. Weinstein, to my surprise, thought enough of my comment on her "Brown Bag Lunch" post (which I re-posted here on my site) to dedicate a full post in response. While I don't want to drag this thing on longer than necessary, I feel the need to address and clarify some of the things I said in that response, and to clear up some confusion about my words and intentions. Italicized below are Rev. Weinstein's words, and my responses are in regular typeface.

So, Is This About Anti-Oppression, Or Is This About School Spirit?
May 30, 2007 on 8:27 pm | In Unitarian Universalism, Theological Reflection (Biblical) | Comments Off

Here, I think we get to a very important element of the great Brown Bag debate. Andy, seminarian at Starr King, writes this post, full of anger and hurt about what I, an “apparent” UU Minister in the Northeast (Hi Andy, I’m Victoria Weinstein. I was ordained 10 years ago and I’ve served our congregations in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Massachusetts. No “apparent” about it) have written about a situation that occurred at SKSM.

Hi Victoria!

I am a student at Starr King in large part because of its anti-oppressive focus and philosophy, so I don't see an "either/or" in relationship to the title of Rev. Weinstein's post.

I was angry when I wrote my response to the Brown Bag post, because I saw it as a mischaracterization of the situation described in Rev. Mummert's sermon, because I saw it as dismissive of the school and its mission, and because of the snarky tone Rev. Weinstein used in her post ("How can I assure that when I ask the cat sitter to scoop Erm’s poops into the brown bags in the mud room, she won’t be offended or oppressed? It might stir up a bad association. It certainly will for me, thinking of students at Starr King, who have so many things to learn about ministry (none of which I heard mentioned in their latest YouTube testimonial, by the way) using up their precious brain cells remembering not to use the words “brown” and “bag” next to each other in a sentence." being one particular passage that seemed to me, to use my own words, particularly haughty and dismissive) misrepresented the issue and precluded actual dialogue in order to make a, well, a cheap shot. Had this point been presented minus the snark the ensuing conversation would have been much different.

Finally, I wasn't intending to impugn Rev. Weinstein's ministry--entirely the opposite! In her profile she says that she blogs anonymously in order to maintain a boundary between her views and those of her congregation. I was respecting that boundary. I didn't know Rev. Weinstein's name, or anything about her, until I read the post I am quoting. Like I said, this is my first introduction to most of the people whose words I have been reading, PeaceBang's author included.

Andy doesn’t explain how the term “brown bag lunch” is hurtful or racist when used in a campus context. Because it’s really not about that, is it? What Andy does is call me haughty and self-satisfied and then (I love this!) proceed to quote JESUS HIMSELF in an effort to smack down the Big Bad Bang. Along the way, of course, he calls me names and, um, insinuates that I’m a pig (”you shall not cast your pearls before swine.”).

Like so many others have established, there is no prohibition at Starr King on brown bags or the term "brown bag lunch". Rev. Mummert helpfully quotes Dr. Rebecca Parker (waaaay down at the bottom of the comments to the Brown Bag Lunch post) to the effect that it was a one-time request from a particular speaker because of particular connotations the term brought up for that speaker. It is not a school policy, nor was it a top-down, Stalinist-style (!) exercise in, uh, Dialectical and Historical Materialism. Did the teaching moment depend on a brave student willing to own up to the fact that they didn't already know everything? Of course! Is it ever otherwise?

Rev. Weinstein point about the language I used to describe the words of her post is well-taken. Related to the "Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory" above, I felt anonymous in my re-posting of my PeaceBang comments here on my own blog. I should have chosen my words with greater care and sensitivity for the feelings of others. I am sorry. However, I did not call Rev. Weinstein any names, nor did I insinuate that she is a pig. And as I said above, this is my first interaction with Rev. Weinstein and and I have no axe to grind against the "Big Bad Bang".

I quoted Matthew 7 as a reminder to all of us, most of all myself, to take care with our propensity to judge others. I said that the quoted passage "should be taken to heart by those of us who feel our words to have such power and resonance that they should be shared with the world, whether from a pulpit or on the internet." I thought, from that preamble, that it would be clear that I spoke as someone who has preached and is in training for active ministry and who also writes things on the internet, and as such was implicated, along with all the other commenters, in the admonishment not to judge.

I find it awfully easy to judge people I hardly know, whether it is on the internet or on the freeway. California is a land of terrible drivers, true, but I find it's bad for the soul to take it personally and assign character deficits to strangers. Rev. Weinstein, I intended that quote in the exact opposite way from how you seem to have interpreted it, and I apologize for that. I should have been clearer.

Andy, knowing a good rhetorical flourish when he sees one, even copies my original ending asking for an AMEN.

I'm glad you liked that too. ;)

And then… and I think I love this even more … someone comments that he’s AWESOME, speaking a “powerful language of love.” It sure is powerful. I’m definitely feeling the love out here on the East Coast.

Holy Mackerel. That commenter was my Mom. She is frequently my only commenter (and, I suspect, my only reader. Hi Mom!!!). And frankly, I hope you are feeling the love out there on the East Coast. The entire point of my comment, which you did not mention in the post I am quoting from, was to invite you to visit Starr King at your next convenience! Sit in on Dr. Dorsey Blake's course on Spirituality and Non-Violent Social Transformation, or Patti Lawrence's class on Congregational Dynamics, or Chris Fry's course on Forgiveness. Have lunch with some students. Just hang out downstairs in the garden. I say this with no anger or bitterness or snark: I personally would love to meet you and talk about some of this stuff. If the internet isn't a place for deep conversation, let's find a venue that will better support our communication.

The thing is, and I think this is really important and I’m going to try to say it in a sincere tone even — it always hurts when people outside your community hear about something you do within it and use their God-given freedom to interpret its meaning in a way that doesn’t square with your best impressions of yourself.

Thank you for the sincere tone, and also for the words. And I think that all of us who are bouncing this conversation around our websites would agree that it is dangerous to be caught in an echo chamber. Just look at the current presidential administration. But, as I said earlier in this post, my problem wasn't with the detail presented but with the language used by Rev. Weinstein, and with the implication of the post that one historical incident could be representative of the entire school atmosphere. It's easy to play the "Starr King = Flaky" game, and difficult to engage in the self-critical thinking that truly characterizes the school.

When I wrote that post, I wasn’t thinking about Starr King as a whole school. I was thinking, and writing about, one small group of people (or even an individual), who made what I think was a wildly illogical conclusion about a certain trio of words. But boy howdy, I sure am thinking about the school as a whole now.

Words like "the folks at the Starr King School For the Ministry are now banishing the term “brown bag lunch” from their collective vocabulary" gave me, and I think others, the impression that you were indeed speaking of the school as a whole, in the present tense. I am sorry for the misunderstanding.

And, given that you are now thinking of the school as a whole, I will reiterate my invitation to you to visit the whole school, and experience its learning environment first-hand.

I got cracked at by several critical commenters for telling the truth about blogs, which is that they’re not the ideal forum for in-depth conversations on important issues. What they’re best at, since I wasn’t clear enough, is trenchant commentary on various issues that pique the interest or get the goat of the individual blogger. As I watch this “conversation” deteriorate in the comments into “YOU don’t get it,” — “No, YOU don’t get it,” dynamics, I have to shrug and say, “Well, there you go. It was just a matter of time before someone pulled out the Gospel of Matthew and called me a pig, or a plank-eye.

Again, I had no intention of calling you a pig or a plank-eye, and I apologize for the misunderstanding. I agree with you about the dynamics of the conversation, and I lament that an opportunity to engage in honest communication has devolved in such a way. I am not pointing fingers of blame, here, just personally disappointed in the outcome of this conversation.

(Rev. Sean is never like that, though, and he’s written a really informative opposing post here.)

Thank God for Rev. Sean, who just finished a teaching and learning semester at Starr King. His presence was a blessing, and we miss him a lot!

I also think Fausto makes a nice contribution, weighing in at The Socinian. Don’t go there if you hated what I had to say: you’ll just hate him even more.

I don't know why this has to be about hate! Were there hurt feelings and misunderstandings? Yes! All the way around! But I think "hate" is taking things way too far.

And I just caught up with Chalice Chick, who sadly says she’s not “qualified” to discuss the brown bag lunch controversy (why not? Because she’s “just” one of the active Unitarian Universalist laypeople to whom our seminarians hope to serve in ministry one day? Hey, CC? Whattup?), discusses it perfectly well right here.

I agree with you that being a layperson makes one eminently qualified to engage in this kind of discussion! This, in fact, is one of Starr King's educational missions: to move theology and other God-talk from being fit only for ministers and possessors of fancy degrees to the province of any who care to engage in it.

Finally, after a post left by my Dad (Hi Dad!!!), Rev. Weinstein left this two-word comment:

Jesus wept.

I am perplexed by this, and would appreciate clarification. Why did Jesus weep? Are we speaking historically, or what? Again, I am new to the Bible (definitely brought up in the secular-humanist wing of UUism), so I fear I do not understand the reference.

Whew! I think that's all, folks. Sorry for the behemoth of a post--I just wanted to explain myself better, and hopefully clear up some of the misunderstandings that have been characteristic of this computer-internet enabled conversation. Tune in ...tomorrow, maybe, for a bunch of pictures and stuff from Oakland and the greater Bay Area of the last month. The big freeway meltdown! The Maker Faire! Flowers! ...and Much, Much More!!!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Be true to your school now!

This is a cross-posting of a comment I left on's recent post about my school, Starr King School for the Ministry. PeaceBang, who is apparently a UU Minister in the Northeast, posted a few days ago an item about my school's supposed "banning" of the term, "brown bag lunch," because of the racialized connotations of brown bags.* Her post was, to my reading, haughty and dismissive, and she seemed awfully pleased with her own wit and ability to take cheap shots at others with little to no basis for her opinions. I think the comments for that post are up to 40, and it's a pretty lively back and forth. So, here is my contribution:

"This may not be the ideal forum for “deep, serious conversation,” but one of the cornerstones of Educating to Counter Oppression is the importance of having deep, serious conversations wherever they happen. The status quo of “waiting for the right moment or forum” to engage with these issues too often leads to setting things aside, and waiting for the right moment is too often the death knell for a deep, serious conversation that needs to happen.

"I am a student at Starr King, having just completed my second year of classes. I am working towards a Master’s of Divinity as well as a Common MA in Arts and Religion from the GTU at large. I am a third-generation Universalist who grew up infused with the values, morals, and principles of Unitarian Universalism thanks to the wonderful community at First Unitarian Society in Madison, WI.

"One of the large, underlying issues in this conversation we find ourselves engaged in here is the power of language. Others have touched on the importance of words, and the seductiveness of snark and ad hominem, better than I could do here. I am writing rather, in the spirit of learning and dialogue, to invite PeaceBang to visit Starr King at her earliest convenience. I invite her to see first-hand what she is so dismissive of, to experience a school truly engaged in the struggle for Beloved Community, to talk with the students and faculty here and to feel the Grace that suffuses the school and its mission.

"Starr King is a laboratory. We are a community of hard workers committed to being the change we want to see in the world, engaged in the task of bringing the values of religious liberalism to the larger community. Are we then grim-faced, humorless protectors of decency? Are we joyless politically correct drudges, determined to rule the behavior and thoughts of others through fiat and executive proclamation? Are we, to borrow a phrase, Holier Than Thou?

"No. While many of the posters on the comments of this site seem to make that linked set of assumptions, I can, with confidence, categorically deny each of them. We, all of us, live in a broken world. We, each of us, are broken people. But there is joy in the hard work of addressing this brokenness, and there is so much love in this world, and in the Starr King community. Are we thoughtful and careful about the implications of our actions, language included? Yes. Do we make mistakes? Yes. Do we recognize our own ridiculousness? Yes. Starr King is not the self-important bastion of self-righteousness that many here seem to think. It is a small school, but bursting with joy and laughter, tears and comfort, and most of all love for each other and the world. Our namesake, Thomas Starr King, was a small man, even in the 19th century, standing 5′, 3″, and weighing under 120 lbs. He famously said, “I may be small, but when I get mad I weigh a ton.” Anger at the condition of the world, and joy at the revelation of its beauty and its possibilities are far from mutually exclusive, PeaceBang, and again I extend open arms to you to come to Starr King School for the Ministry at your earliest convenience and discover that for yourself.

"I will close with a passage from the Bible that I think is applicable to this discussion, and that should be taken to heart by those of us who feel our words to have such power and resonance that they should be shared with the world, whether from a pulpit or on the internet. Some words from Jesus of Nazareth’s Sermon on the Mount, as recounted by the author(s) of the Book of Matthew (New International Version):

"Matthew 7

"Judging Others

"1 Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

"3 Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

"6 Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.

"Can I get an “Amen”?"

The Bible quote might have been laying it on a little thick, but I wanted to give vent to my anger and displeasure at the situation.


*Which are, surprisingly, not insignificant. There is history of Southern churches stapling a grocery bag next to the church door and forbidding fellowship to those whose skin was darker than the brown paper. And, of course, my surprise at this is certainly a factor of my white skin and its attendant privilege.