THE YEAR IN RELIGION

JANUARY 5, 2003
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein


I have to agree with Martin Marty that it was not a particularly good year for religion; or should we say it was not a particularly good year for religion's reputation. In 2002, those of us who believe that religion - religious community, and even organized religion - is generally a good thing had nothing to do in 2002 but look down at the rug and wish for better days, when anti-religious people started in about the evils and dangers of faith and faith traditions. Being a Unitarian Universalist is to be constantly subjected to this kind of tirade: even from many of those who come to our churches week after week, year after year, whose hearts are touched by the rituals celebrated there and whose lives are immeasurably graced by the relationships they develop through their congregation, and by the challenges they find there to engage in the causes of social justice. These are the same dear, inconsistent individuals who will still insist that religion is generally a bad thing, and that God is even worse because look at what people do in His name!

To quote Anne Lamott, this is the kind of remark that makes Jesus drink gin out of the cat dish. In 2003 I will continue to challenge Unitarian Universalists and others who engage critically with religion, to use our freedom to seek after those things that we do affirm and celebrate as spiritual beings, and to spend much less energy and spleen continuing to protest what we reject about religion. Don't we pretty much know by now? Hasn't it been said enough? UUs have been beating the same dead horses for so long now that other, supposedly less free religious traditions are moving way ahead of us in discovering fresh and revitalizing, healthier, inclusive and affirming ways of "doing" religion and theology than we do. They are growing. We, meanwhile, are mostly not growing. When we are less invested in our anger and disappointment at how unenlightened and unenlightening is so much of religion, and become more invested in understanding and promoting liberal faith, then we'll grow. We will grow when we've grown beyond anger, resentment and the compulsion to insult those we see as close-minded, and move into graciousness, true tolerance and kindness as our central ways of being. I believe that Unitarian Universalism will grow when Unitarian Universalists grow up.

In 2003, I want every member and committed friend of this congregation to make it a point to develop a working definition of Unitarian Universalism, and to teach it to your children. I will help you do this. I can't wait, in fact, to help you do this!

In 2003, let's, at least amongst ourselves, resist the temptation to blame religion for all the cruelties and idiocies human beings inflict on each other and the environment. I have been paying pretty close attention to evil and degradation lately, and I am collecting a big pile of evidence that proves that what human beings do in the name of their Gods is really no worse than what they do in the name of country, in the name of family, or in the name of love. Would there really have been no crusades, no Holocaust and no global warming if we lived in a world without religious beliefs and religious groups? Unfortunately not. So if I have one fervent prayer for 2003 that soars above every other prayer, it is that we become more mature in our pronouncements and judgments, more careful in our analyses of what is wrong with our world, and more appreciative of the various and complex factors that create suffering. I pray that we will move from beyond finger pointing, and open those hands and put them to work. and put them together in joyful clapping, and use them to pet and smooth each other's furrowed brows. Believe me, friends, I myself am in the more need of this prayer than anyone else I know.

No, this was not a good year for religion's reputation. Islamic fundamentalists continued to dominate the news, with bombings and attacks in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia; often at popular tourist spots and in one horrific incident, at a theatre in Russia when Chechyen rebels took hostages after a performance of a stage play. The fundamentalist Islamic court in Nigeria upheld convictions against women for adultery: one woman, Amina Lawal, lost her appeal on August 19, 2002, and is scheduled to be stoned to death after she weans her eight-month old daughter. We might note that the men involved in these cases were let go, as no one produced the necessary four male witnesses to their alleged crime in order to convict them. An American missionary named Bonnie Penner was murdered in Lebanon: the first time in ten years an American has been killed in that Muslim-majority country. It was not a good year for the world's second-largest religious group as the fanatics among them managed to mangle the name of Islam.

Those of us with fairly sick senses of humor began to laugh bitterly when reporters spoke of "escalating tensions" in the middle east - when will they stop referring to the daily bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians as "escalating tensions" and call it warfare, or war? Throwing stones and exchanging a few bullets is escalating. Constant news of homicidal martyrs blowing themselves and as many of their enemies of they can take with them - and their enemies retaliating with their own attacks the next day - it seems to me that tensions have escalated and erupted in outright warfare, or am I missing something?

I have spoken about the Catholic Church's struggles and the "sins of the fathers," if you'll permit a not-so-funny pun. While this devastating scandal has eroded or destroyed the trust of many of the faithful, it has also reaffirmed some of our primary commitments and beliefs: that each and every individual is responsible for discerning truth for him or herself, and that the church is only strong when its members are aware of where authority resides and approving of how it is used, taking responsibility for evaluating their leaders and holding them accountable to the community. We see proof that a system is only healthy when there's plenty of fresh air blowing through it, open meetings and shared conversation, operating under the assumption that all players are equal parties in making important decisions. We have occasion to appreciate afresh our congregational tradition of choosing religious leaders and being able to dismiss them if they violate our confidence and our values. We see the high cost of closed hierarchies and idolatry of tradition, where history is honored more highly than people. We have occasion to reflect deeply on the profound harm done to all beings when sexuality is demonized and the blessings and growth opportunities that come only through intimate relationships denied. Ethical understanding often comes at a very high price. Let us hope it is not too high.

In other religious news, environmentalist Christians in the Evangelical Environmental Network challenged drivers of SUVs to consider their environmental sins in an ad campaign that asked, effectively and humorously, "What Would Jesus Drive?" Partnered with the National Council of Churches, we can only hope that this is the start of a new trend in the country, as Christians move away from the "dominion over the earth" model favored by our president and toward a sense of humble stewardship with the planet. In a related story, many Unitarian Universalists participated in an Interfaith Service of Prayer and Witness on June 11, 2002, sponsored by Religious Witness for the Earth and focused on climate change in the new millenium.

The Faithful Fools continued their clowny street ministry in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, and the Ecumenical Apostolate of the Resurrection, also Bay Area- based, continued to develop their congregational Catholic ministries with the Inclusive Liturgy Project, a series of worship resources committed to honoring non-gendered ways of envisioning God, the religious leadership of women as well as men, the holiness of all love, including that between people of the same gender, and respect for the planet. Other American Catholic groups ordained women, affirmed gay priests, and supported married priests; all while firmly declaring themselves faithful to their Catholic tradition. I applaud their courage and vision.

We shall keep looking for the good news in 2003.
So what about your year? When you look back, what grade would you give it? Someone asked me the other day if I had made any New Year's resolutions. Just one, I responded. I resolve to love my life this year, and that simple commitment should render all of the other resolutions moot. For me, it all starts with loving your life.

I am a new year baby (my birthday, January 14, is still celebrated as the new year by the Eastern Orthodox church, and this is my maternal heritage) and it is my custom to spend some time in early January mulling over any big epiphanies or spiritual insights I have gleaned from the past year's experience. This year's primary insight comes from an expression my old college roommate Mary used to use: TMI. Too Much Information. Mary and I would use this phrase disparagingly in response to what we would now call "over-sharing" - when some one would, for instance, hold forth on every detail of her last date, including personal intimate encounters we just didn't care to know about. TMI. Those who lacked the decency to spare us the descriptions of just how sick that last bout of the flu made them, or who went on and on in gory detail about their dog's bathroom habits: TMI!

I suffered from extreme TMI in 2002 and I don't think it was good for my soul. We don't just hear about the brutal details of the last violent attack somewhere on the globe, now we get living footage. The evening news somehow thinks I need to see each car wreck that occurs anywhere in the metro Boston area; somehow this is news, while coverage of the arts and culture and science and education and finance and medicine and neighborhoods, communities and civic life is not, unless it is somehow lurid, and worthy to be exploited in some sensationalistic way.

A mother wrote to the Boston Globe about gun control this summer. She was weepy and distraught because her toddler was now having nightmares that a sniper would come and shoot him or someone he loved as they stopped for gas or at Home Depot. I do support gun control myself, but it occurred to me that this mother could do something more immediate about her child's fears: turn off the television.

TMI. An onslaught of bad news from everywhere at once, and fear-mongering to go along with it. Red codes, orange codes, yellow codes. Foods that cause cancer, pictures of the insides of people's arteries and predictions not about how we will live, but when we will die if we don't take up soy diets today. Even the weather is made into a dramatic story. If I listened to the weatherman I would never leave my house (just this weekend, I apparently took my life into my hands by venturing down to New Bedford to participate in the Moby Dick-A-Thon marathon reading of Melville's novel at the whaling museum. What the weather gurus predicted as a "major nor' easter" turned out to be steady rain and grey skies). The Animal Planet Channel has me convinced that if I should dare to travel to foreign lands again, I am destined to come home playing unwilling hostess to some kind of flesh-eating parasite (I know this is true, I saw it on "Eaten Alive!")!

In "Bowling for Columbine," documentarist Michael Moore concludes that Americans are the most homicidal nation on earth not because we own more guns or play more violent video games or watch more violent movies than anywhere else - that's just not true. We're violent and trigger-happy, he concludes, because we're scared, and fear is fed to us by our media in a steady stream, a relentless onslaught.

This year I resolve to love my life and to try not to give so much of it over to fear. Here is a quote from Rabbi David Zeller that found this week and which I am holding dear: "Just as heart disease can be reversed by ceasing to ingest food that is high in fat and cholesterol, so too can we reverse spiritual heart disease by eliminating or at least cutting down on the junk content of things our eyes, ears, and minds take in, in our normal everyday diet of perceptions" (The Jewish Lights Spirituality Handbook, ed. Stuart M. Matlins). This year, I vow to live in the truth that although there is loss and suffering and violence and death (and parasites) all around us, there is also, at every given moment, ordinary life that is unfolding for millions of people who are not in crisis. Even better, it has been proven that millions and millions of those ordinary people having ordinary days are willing and able to help those who are in crisis, and this happens all the time too. (as a matter of fact, this happens here in this congregation on a very regular basis). This year I am giving up non-nourishing perceptions. I invite you now to jot down something you would like to leave behind you in the old year, and to consign it to the flames in the Burning Bowl.