Safe Streets for Whom? — UUS:E worship, January 16, 2022

“Safe Streets for Whom?” by the Rev. Josh Pawelek

The fourth Unitarian Universalist principle is “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” I’ve been reflecting on this principle in preparing for this Martin Luther King weekend service. Though truth and meaning are not the same thing, they can easily become confused, especially when people are afraid. Fear can be a powerful source of meaning, a potent motivator, a rallying cry for people who feel aggrieved in some way; yet it can also serve as a substitute for truth. It can keep us from conducting an honest appraisal of the situation. This is exactly what is happening with Connecticut’s so-called Safe Streets campaign; and because the quality of life for young people of color in Connecticut is at stake, I feel compelled to speak out: to clarify what is true, and to assert what this truth actually means.

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As the pandemic continued to unfold through its first year, 2020, Connecticut experienced an increase in crime. This is a fact. Car thefts received the most attention in the media; but there were also increases in burglaries, murders (primarily in the state’s largest cities) and, as we heard last week from Mary-Jane Foster of Interval House, domestic violence. I have a one-question test for you about the car thefts. Who was primarily responsible for the increase in car thefts? Think about what you’ve encountered on the news, on your social media accounts, or what friends and neighbors have said. Who was responsible for that apparent tidal wave of car thefts in 2020?

If your answer is teenagers, you are not alone. Many people believe teenagers have run amuck and are stealing cars at alarming rates. The ominous undertone in much of the public hand-wringing about this “crisis” is that the primary perpetrators are inner city teenagers – which we know is code for children of color – coming into white suburban communities to steal cars. That is not a fact. There’s no data to support it. But many people believe it’s true nevertheless, which has led to a generalized culture of fear. You may feel that fear. Again, you are not alone. And whether you feel it or not, you’ve likely encountered it in others—friends, family, neighbors—on social media, in letters to local editors, in statements from politicians, in the “Safe Streets” campaign. It’s out there.

I suggest this problem has been blown way out of proportion, and this fear has been stoked for political reasons. It’s a misinformation campaign which I understand as an excellent example of the way white supremacy culture has always functioned in the United States. Whether we’re studying the Reconstruction Era, the Civil Rights Movement, the American Indian Movement, or today’s Black Lives Matter movement, whenever there is progress in the struggle against racism, there is backlash, often driven by unfounded fear in white communities. In Connecticut there has been notable progress in recent years. The 2020 police accountability law, passed in the months after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, began to address many of the factors that had resulted in the over-policing of communities of color, excessive police violence in communities of color, and mass incarceration of people of color. While that bill was a good beginning and there is more work yet to do, it clearly represents movement toward a more racially just society. It represents progress.

More pertinent to the question of youth crime, and much less visible to the average person, reforms of the state’s juvenile justice statutes over the past decade have made the criminal justice system more humane for young people, specifically for young people of color. According to Connecticut Public Radio’s Accountability Project, “Reforms enacted over the last decade prevent children from being arrested for skipping too much school or running away from home. The state also stopped sending all 16- and 17-year-olds accused of breaking the law to the adult court system…. Today, Connecticut incarcerates children at one of the lowest rates in the country. And drastically fewer children are on probation or intertwined in the juvenile justice system — about half as many as in 2011.”[1] One of the concerns when these reforms were enacted is that young people who don’t face tough penalties will be more inclined to reoffend. That hasn’t happened. The rate of re-offense hasn’t risen. In fact, over the last decade it has shown modest declines in all categories—which means the reforms are working. Progress.

But now there is backlash, articulated most clearly through the so-called Safe Streets campaign, which has been engendering fear in white communities by making false claims about a youth crime epidemic and then citing a lack of public safety and widespread fear as the rationale for rolling back the progress on juvenile justice and police accountability. Progress, backlash. It’s a longstanding and very predictable pattern in American society. In this case it begs the question, safe streets for whom? Hint: whether they realize it or not, Safe Streets leaders are not talking about safety for youth of color.

Without a doubt, there was an increase in car thefts in Connecticut during the first year of the pandemic. According to the FBI, in 2019 there were 168 car thefts per 100,000 vehicles—the  lowest rate of car thefts in Connecticut in the last 30 years. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, there were 237 car thefts per 100,000 vehicles.[2] I can’t find complete data for 2021, but last winter and spring, car thefts declined back to 2015 levels (though not as low as 2019). For perspective, the rate of thefts in both 2019 and 2020 were historically low. In the early 1990s Connecticut averaged nearly 800 car thefts per 100,000 vehicles. The rate has been declining ever since.

Was there a youth-led car theft epidemic in 2020? The most truthful response is that nobody knows. Nobody knows because car thefts have one of the lowest clearance rates of any crime, meaning the vast majority remain unsolved. On average over the last decade only 10% of car thefts are cleared, meaning police only catch one out of ten thieves. In 2020 the clearance rate was 7%. In the data on that 7% there is some helpful information. Of those 7% who were caught, 28%—just over 1 in 4—were teenagers.

Does that sound like a lot to you? I ask, because it’s been the same rate, give or take a few percentage points, since 2015.[3]  I’m not saying it’s OK, but if it’s an epidemic, then why haven’t we been alarmed all along? Why are we alarmed now when there is no data to support the claim that youth were more involved in car thefts in 2020 than in any other recent year? The difference between 2015 and now isn’t the rate of youth crime. The difference is the progress we’ve made as a state on addressing racism in the criminal justice system. Progress breeds backlash.

For those of you who want to learn more—and who would like to see evidence that juvenile justice reforms and the police accountability law are having, on the whole, a positive impact—I commend to you the reporting of Connecticut Public Radio’s “Accountability Project.”[4] Last fall, in response to all the talk about a youth crime wave, they took a deep dive into the data on crime, car thefts, youth involvement in the criminal justice system, repeat juvenile offenders, the political debate, etc. It’s excellent, accessible, unbiased reporting. They let the data speak. The Safe Streets folks would be wise to take this reporting seriously. Check out their reporting here.

In my 54 years of life, I have never been the victim of a crime. I know some of you have been crime victims because you’ve shared stories with me. I have friends, family and neighbors who’ve been crime victims, including during the 2020 uptick in crime. But I personally don’t know what it’s like in an immediate, visceral way. I do know it’s awful. It’s a violation. It’s demoralizing. It’s traumatizing. The proper role of any religious body, and the proper role of any religious leader, is to offer a comforting, supportive, caring presence to crime victims for as long as they need it, and to advocate for them in all the ways they may require advocacy. I want to be crystal clear that in saying there is no evidence to support the existence of a 2020 youth crime wave, I am not dismissing the experience of actual crime victims. Their experience is painfully real, and we are obligated to respond to it as such.

Our Unitarian Universalist principles also obligate us to prioritize justice and equity in human relations, and that means not allowing ourselves to be swayed by the rhetoric of fear, especially when it drives a backlash against progress on racial justice. I don’t want to dismiss anyone’s fear, but the data on youth crime in Connecticut (not unlike the data on the legitimacy of the 2020 national elections) reveals that some fear is manufactured and must be challenged. If you say “there’s a youth crime epidemic” enough times in front of reporters and on social media, and if you keep holding up a few notorious but rare cases of excessively violent youth crime and letting them serve as evidence of a problem that doesn’t actually exist, you will eventually frighten people. And once people are frightened, they are easier to manipulate into taking political action, which is exactly what Safe Streets is doing. Clearly all fears are not equal.

I have recently become familiar with the work of Zach Norris, currently the executive director of Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.[5] Norris’ new book, Defund Fear: Safety Without Policing, Prisons, and Punishment[6], was published in paperback last year by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Beacon Press and was selected as the UUA’s “common read” for this year. I haven’t read it yet, but I have done some research on Norris’ work and world-view. He’s very clear about the distinction between the things that truly ought to frighten us, and fears manufactured for political reasons or that emerge as the result white supremacy culture. In a 2020 interview with Forbes Magazine he said:

“Despite dropping crime rates [we feel unsafe] because there are many legitimate threats to our safety, but also because of the rhetoric of fear. There’s a drumbeat of constant news coverage about active shooters, terrorist threats, and jobs taken by foreigners — because corporations and politicians benefit from inflaming those fears. They point the finger at people outside our borders or in the ‘inner cities.’ In fact, the most serious threats to our well-being can’t be so easily blamed on scapegoats: things like fires and storms brought about by climate chaos, or the prospect of needing medical care but not being able to afford it, or facing eviction. Those are the most dangerous and most widespread threats we face, and those are the fault of the economic system, a system that prioritizes profit over life, for the benefit of a powerful few….         

The ‘architects of anxiety’ is my term for the people who actively stoke and manipulate our anxieties so that we buy what they want us to buy and vote the way they want us to vote. When elected officials and powerful corporate interests invoke our fears, we should consider what harms they are drawing attention away from, like sleight-of-hand magicians…. While we’re spending billions on … incarceration, border patrols, surveillance, stop and frisk, etc. — we’ve also systematically under-spent on programs that would ensure safe food and drinking water, safe roads and bridges, a living wage, affordable housing, reliable and accessible healthcare, and care and support in our old age. The countries that have invested in these kinds of programs have lower levels of crime and violence, and greater well-being.[7]

In short, if we as a society really want to reduce crime, we must stop investing in prisons, punishment and over-policing, and start investing in people and communities. If we as a society want to reduce the real sources of fear in human life, we must stop focusing on scapegoats and start focusing on the resources that create healthy, vibrant people and communities.

It is said we live in a post-truth society—and certainly there is some truth to that. But the kind of evasion of the truth the Safe Streets campaign perpetuates is not indicative of a new era. It’s part of a longstanding, historical pattern of backlash against progress for racial justice. I’m speaking out. I hope you will too.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Haddadin, Jim, Rabe Thomas, Jacqueline, Smith Randolph, Walter, and Montague, Deidre, “Chart: Five Things to Know About Juvenile Crime in Connecticut.” Connecticut Public Radio, November 1, 2021. See: https://www.ctpublic.org/2021-11-01/charts-5-things-to-know-about-juvenile-crime-in-connecticut.

[2] The national average was 245.

[3] For the record, though it’s a minor difference, when looking at the data on clearance rates, a higher percentage of youth were arrested for car theft in 2019 (31%) than in 2020 (28%). Just sayin’.

[4] Haddadin, Jim, Rabe Thomas, Jacqueline, Smith Randolph, Walter, and Montague, Deidre, “Chart: Five Things to Know About Juvenile Crime in Connecticut.” Connecticut Public Radio, November 1, 2021. See: https://www.ctpublic.org/2021-11-01/charts-5-things-to-know-about-juvenile-crime-in-connecticut.

[5] The Ella Baker Center creates campaigns related to civic engagement, violence prevention, juvenile justice, and police brutality, with a goal of shifting economic resources away from prisons and punishment and towards economic opportunity. See: https://ellabakercenter.org/.

[6] Originally published in hardcover as We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just, and Inclusive CommunitiesDefund Fear is a blueprint of how to hold people accountable while still holding them in community. The result reinstates full humanity and agency for everyone who has been dehumanized and traumatized, so they can participate fully in life, in society, and in the fabric of our democracy. Purchase at https://www.uuabookstore.org/Defund-Fear-P18793.aspx.

[7] Simon, Morgan, “America’s Investment In Fear: Zach Norris’s New Book Redefines Public Safety” Forbes, February, 4, 2020. See: https://www.forbes.com/sites/morgansimon/2020/02/04/americas-investment-in-fear-zach-norriss-new-book-redefines-public-safety/?sh=77688c447ddd.

 

On Setting Our Intentions — UUS:E Worship, January 2, 2022

“The Moments of Our High Resolve” by the Rev. Josh Pawelek

I’m calling today a homecoming. You may remember we decided to postpone our traditional September homecoming service because we weren’t quite ready to return to in-person, indoor worship and religious education. I always imagined today would be our homecoming. Today would be the first Sunday of the new year, the Sunday on which we’d return to two services. Despite and because of all our safety measures – masks, distancing, open windows, etc.—we would have a decent number of people in the meeting house, celebrating our congregation, celebrating our spiritual community, looking forward to a new, hopefully better, hopefully less strange year. Thanks to the late autumn delta surge; thanks to the early winter omicron surge; thanks to increasing hospitalizations; thanks to over 100 cases per 100,000 residents in Connecticut; thanks to breakthrough infections; thanks to a big lack of clarity into what it all means for the next few months, this morning’s service isn’t our traditional homecoming. But I’m calling it a homecoming nevertheless.

If we can’t yet physically come home, the way we’d like to, to our beloved meeting house here on Elm Hill, on the Manchester-Vernon line, on the ancestral lands of the Podunk and Wangunk people, land whose waters trickle down to the Hockanum River, eventually feeding the Connecticut or ‘long tidal’ River; if we can’t come home to our meeting house the way we’d like to, we can nevertheless come home to its meaning in our lives, to the values it affirms, to the peace it conveys, to the love it holds.

That sort of homecoming is actually what happens every Sunday. Every time we arrive for worship (or any other purpose), whether in person or virtual, we receive an invitation to encounter that meaning, those values, that peace, that love—mindful that what we encounter here can be very different from what we encounter in the wider world. Often the wider world centers competition and consumption. It celebrates a false understanding of youth as well as elderhood. It exerts a variety of pressures to conform. It asks us to deny the more complex and painful aspects of our history. It demands that we fit into certain social boxes, some quite limiting and even harmful. It is an inducer of stress. At its worst it is exhausting, anxiety-producing, divisive, toxic, oppressive, traumatic. But even without encountering the worst features of the wider world, even with just the wear and tear of daily life, it is quite easy to forget what matters most to us, what we truly care about, our values, our principles, the people we hold, the people who hold us, how we ought to be, how we are called to live. It is quite easy to forget. But when we come here we remember, we receive that invitation, we come home to the best possible versions of ourselves—our creative, committed, compassionate selves, our justice-seeking, peace-making selves, our loving selves. That’s a great definition of church, isn’t it? The place that invites you home to your best self.

Earlier I asked us to recite the Unitarian Universalist principles. We typically recite the principles at our homecoming service. This recitation is an important reminder. It’s part of the invitation to come home to our best selves. I know you know this, but it bears repeating: As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t gather together around a common theology or confession of faith. We gather together around these principles. They are guides. They guide us in our living, our treatment of ourselves, others and the earth, our open approach to the spiritual life, our embrace of democratic processes, our vision for a more just and peaceful world.

When I share these principles with people who aren’t familiar with our faith, more often than not, they say Yes! I agree. These principles are similar to my own. Nobody has ever said this is completely foreign to me. So as I recite our principles here, I’m mindful that they are not unique or exclusive to us. Nor are they particularly controversial or radical—there’s a universality to them. Having said that, I’m also mindful they can be exceedingly difficult to put into practice. Sustaining democratic processes, especially in this post January 6th era, requires intense engagement. Searching freely and responsibly for truth and meaning—and understanding the difference between the two—especially in this so-called post-truth era—requires intense engagement. Respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person, especially in this era of division and spite and revenge, requires intense engagement, requires discipline, requires ongoing commitment. None of it is easy. Disengagement is easier by far. Forgetting is easier by far. Growing numb to all the negative dynamics and trends is easier by far. And every time we choose that easier path, we slip further and further from our best, truest, most authentic selves. So we come here to come home to that self. We rehearse our principles to come home to that self. We worship together to come home to that self. Welcome home!

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Our Ministry theme for January is intention. As I wrote in my newsletter column, I was recently struck by a quote from Katie Covey, who serves as Director of Religious Education for Soul Matters. (For those who may not know, Soul Matters is a subscription-based, independent UU resource center that provides theme-based worship and religious education materials.) Katie Covey said that living with intention is different from setting goals or resolutions. Living with intention, she says, “pulls us into” who we truly are. Goals and resolutions “push us out” into future possibilities.

While I’m not sure this distinction works in all cases, I’m finding it very helpful this New Year’s weekend. Think about the typical New Year’s resolution. So often it is about fixing some aspect of ourselves we don’t like. I resolve to lose weight. I resolve to exercise more. I resolve to drink less. I resolve to live a healthier lifestyle. I resolve to repair my relationship with my parent, my sibling, my friend. I resolve to get a new job with more, or less, responsibility. I resolve to establish a sane work/life balance. I resolve to retire. There’s usually an implicit, if not explicit self-critique at the heart of these resolutions. There’s something wrong with my life. There’s something about me that needs repair. I could be better than I am.

It’s rare that a New Year’s resolution stems from a positive self-affirmation. It’s rare that a New Year’s resolution highlights something we love about ourselves and then resolves to maintain the status quo. I am a friendly person. I resolve to stay exactly the same! I am a helpful person. I will continue helping people. I am a good listener. I am a supportive spouse. I am a shamelessly doting grandparent or great aunt or great uncle. I resolve to stay exactly the same! So in this sense, Katie Covey is right. Resolutions, especially the New Year’s sort, push us out into future possibilities. And that’s fine. If you want or need to change some aspect of who you are, if you want or need to be different in some way from your current self, if you want or need to fix something about you that isn’t working, then a resolution makes sense. With discipline, work to achieve it. I am sure your UUS:E friends and family will support you.

However, what if we long to become more fully who we are, to hone or deepen the dimensions of ourselves that we like the most, the dimensions that give us a sense of meaning and purpose, dimensions that align with our most deeply held values? What do I like about myself, and how can I focus more attention on that? What matters most to me, and how can I pursue that? What’s right with me and how can I sustain that? If these are our questions, we’re exploring intention more than goals or resolutions. At least that’s the distinction Katie Covey and Soul Matters are offering for our reflection this month.

I like the way Buddhist teacher Phillip Moffitt describes this distinction. Moffitt was a publishing executive and successful editor at Esquire Magazine, who left the corporate world in the 1980s to, as he puts it, devote myself to finding more joy and meaning in my life.” Today he’s an instructor at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. In a post on his website he writes: “With goals, the future is always the focus: Are you going to reach the goal? Will you be happy when you do? What’s next? Setting intention, at least according to Buddhist teachings, is quite different than goal making. It is not oriented toward a future outcome. Instead, it is a path or practice that is focused on how you are ‘being’ in the present moment. Your attention is on the ever-present ‘now’ in the constantly changing flow of life. You set your intentions based on understanding what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values.”[1]

What stands out to me in these words is that with the setting of intentions we’re not looking for something novel. We’re not trying to create a new and improved self. We’re looking for something that’s already there, something that already matters to us, values we already hold. Perhaps we’ve disengaged, perhaps we’ve forgotten, but it’s still there, still a part of us. In setting intentions we’re remembering, reclaiming, returning. We’re coming home. Living with intention is a movement in, more than a movement out.

My favorite articulation of this idea is a short piece, sometimes known as “My High Resolve” by the 20th-century, American Christian mystic, Howard Thurman. There’s a version of this piece in our Unitarian Universalist hymnal, but I want to share a longer version that Soul Matters included in its resource packet for this month. Thurman wrote:

Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve. Despite the dullness and barrenness of the days that pass, if I search with due diligence, I can always find a deposit left by some former radiance. But I had forgotten. At the time it was full-orbed, glorious, and resplendent. I was sure that I would never forget. I had forgotten how easy it is to forget. There was no intent to betray what seemed so sure at the time. My response was whole, clean, authentic. But little by little, there crept into my life the dust and grit of the journey. Details, lower-level demands, all kinds of cross currents — nothing momentous, nothing overwhelming, nothing flagrant — just wear and tear. If there had been some direct challenge — a clear-cut issue — I would have fought it to the end, and beyond. In the quietness of this place, surrounded by the all-pervading Presence of God, my heart whispers: Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in fair weather or in foul, in good times or in tempests, in the days when the darkness and the foe are nameless or familiar, I may not forget that to which my life is committed.[2]

He’s talking about something essential he once knew in his heart, in his bones, in his soul, but forgot. He never imagined how easy it would be to forget this full-orbed, glorious, resplendent thing, but the world has way of distracting us, misdirecting us, wearing and tearing us down. And so he prays: “Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, [so] that … I may not forget that to which my life is committed.” He’s praying to come back to his best self, his true self, his most authentic self. He’s praying to come home.

So now I ask you: what moment of High Resolve have you forgotten? What still vital commitment have you let slip away? How easy to forget through these years of pandemic? How easy to forget once children come, once their lives—and their children’s lives—become their own High Resolve with no regard to anything else? How easy to forget our full-orbed, glorious, resplendent intentions when we need to put food on tables and roofs over heads? Is there some former radiance still glowing just at the edge of sight, the edge of awareness? In the quietness of this place, surrounded by the all-pervading presence of the Holy, surrounded by your UUS:E family, I invite you to remember.

Friends: my prayer is that this place, this Unitarian Universalist congregation, will keep before you the moments of your High Resolve, no matter how deeply buried, no matter how long forgotten.. My prayer and my hope and my faith is that this place is here for you to come home.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Moffitt, Phillip, “The Heart’s Intention,” Dharma Wisdom. See: https://dharmawisdom.org/the-hearts-intention/.

[2] Quoted in Soul Matters’ worship resource packet for January, 2022. Also see Thurman, Howard, “In the Quietness of This Place,” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA, 1993) #498.

Christmas Eve 2021

Joy Will Come — A Christmas Story

Dare We Make a Joyful Noise? UUS:E Worship, December 12, 2021

On Mourning and Celebration — UUS:E 11/21/21 worship

All You Need is Love? — UUS:E Virtual Worship, November 14, 2021

Introduction

Two years ago Paul Cocuzzo purchased a sermon at our annual goods and services auction. On three separate occasions I planned to preach this sermon, and each time I had to postpone. Today is the day. Paul’s sermon idea fits well with our November ministry theme holding history. It fits well with the national observance of Native American Heritage Month.[1] For me, it’s a two-part “big picture” sermon. First, Paul offers an analysis of the root cause of virtually every problem we face as a nation and a planet. He identifies that root cause as capitalism or capitalist settler colonialism and its insidious, relentless commodification of everything—land, natural resources, animals, culture, even human beings. Everything is for sale. Everything can be owned in some way.

Second, he asks: If we as individuals, as a congregation, as residents of Connecticut and the United States are going to effectively resist and transform the legacies of capitalist settler colonialism, what values must reside at the heart of that resistance? Paul is wary of love as such a central value. We asked Dan and Sandy to sing Sally Rogers’ “Love will Guide Us” from our hymnal, and the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” as a general reminder that people of faith—especially people who locate themselves under the broad umbrella of the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—typically identify love as the most essential value in the work of confronting, subverting, resisting, transforming all forms of oppression. In Unitarian Universalism, the second source of our living tradition is “Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Our fourth source is “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”[2] Like so many other faiths, we center love. Paul feels strongly that love is not enough. He prefers respect.

Part I

In her poem, “Rabbit is Up to Tricks,” United States poet laureate, Joy Harjo (Mvskoke/Creek), says In a world long before this one, there was enough / for everyone,/ Until somebody got out of line.[3] Rabbit got out of line. Rabbit created clay man and taught him to steal—a chicken, then corn, then a wife. Stealing made clay man feel important and powerful. (It makes Rabbit feel that way too.) So the stealing continued. Clay man wanted all the chickens, all the corn, all the wives. He was insatiable. He wanted all the gold, all the land, all the trade, all the countries. His wanting only made him want more. The results were devastating. Says Harjo: We lost track of the purpose and reason for life. / We began to forget our songs. We forgot our stories. / We could no longer see or hear our ancestors, / Or talk with each other across the kitchen table. / Forests were being mowed down all over the world. Rabbit tried to call clay man back, but he realized he’d made clay man with no ears, so he did not listen.

I don’t believe I have to convince anyone here that, although Harjo tells this story in the language and style of myth, it is a true story. It describes precisely how capitalist settler colonialism has operated in the world from its origins, stealing, plundering, owning and selling for profit with insatiable hunger. Indigenous people across the Americas have been telling versions of this true story for five hundred years. Those of us who read Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’ An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States last year became more intimately familiar with this true story as it has played out here on Turtle Island. Descendants of African slaves have been telling versions of this true story for hundreds of years. Across virtually the entire world, wherever capitalist settler colonialism took root, people continue to tell versions of this true story. Even in Europe and among people of European descent in the Americas, you can hear stories about the way capitalism destroyed ancient cultures, folkways, systems of healing, crafting, worshipping; destroyed the very concept of the commons—land not owned by anyone, but held by the community for everyone to use as needed.[4]

Those who’ve been following the negotiations at the United Nations’ 26th Climate Change Conference in Glasgow are hearing yet more versions of this story. Capitalism is as hungry as ever for profits and makes no genuine apology for plundering the planet. The capitalist settler colonial world-view allows, encourages, authorizes capitalists to own and commodify the land, the trees, the crops, the livestock, the water, the mountain tops, and the ancient underground remains of plants and plankton extracted as fuel to power all the ways wealth continues to generate wealth. Rabbit’s trick has backfired. Young people from across the globe were screaming in the streets of Glasgow. Dignitaries made promises. Is capitalist settler colonialism listening? Only, I fear, if the solution can be owned, and even then, only if the solution earns a greater return on investment than the problem.

Part II

Given the power of capitalist settler colonialism globally, the power of corporations, their alignment with governments, their control of the media, how does one realistically begin to imagine and work toward a world where there is enough for everyone? One place to start is to learn everything we can about the societies, cultures and nations that existed before capitalist settler colonialism arrived, and that have survived in a variety of ways throughout the ensuing centuries. Paul notices a basic difference in attitude regarding ownership when comparing indigenous American world-views with capitalist settler colonialism. We were talking about land management in response to the western wildfires. He said “I was [originally] duped into the belief that Indigenous people didn’t manage the land. They did manage the land. But there was a limit. They might set a fire to maintain grassland; but they didn’t fence in the buffalo and selectively breed them. They didn’t take ownership. [Land] wasn’t just a resource or a priced commodity. It was a relationship.”

I hear Paul wondering how we move from a society grounded in the capitalist settler colonial world-view, and whose highest, most sacred value is ownership; to a new world modelled on indigenous practices and wisdom that views all life as related, as sacred; a world where ownership may exist but isn’t a fundamental driving force; a world that centers the commons; a world where there is enough for everyone. What value must take hold in humanity so that such change is possible? Change in individual hearts, in communities, in nations. From ownership to relationship. What gets us there?

Paul contends love won’t get us there. He prefers respect. He sums it up with this statement: “You can love a person and own them, but you can’t respect them and own them.” He feels the same way about animals and says that was his motivation for becoming vegan.

“You can love a person and own them, but you can’t respect them and own them.” I struggled with these words when I first heard them, and I still struggle. My only frame of reference is what I studied in college about slave owners prior to the Civil War who claimed to love their slaves, yet continued to hold them in bondage. I suppose there are business owners who claim to love their employees yet who also exploit their labor. I imagine the owners of factory farms might claim to love their livestock, but nevertheless house them in inhumane conditions, exploit them, and accelerate climate change in the process.

Paul offers respect as more important than love. He points out “There are people who love their partners, but who can also abuse them. If there was true respect, the abuse couldn’t happen…. Respecting them as a person forces you to see their point of view….” He says “love is a feeling. You can’t make yourself have a feeling. [Feelings] can swing either way…. Respect is a decision.” In this sense, respect is a more stable, more reliable value in the struggle to change hearts, communities and nations. Paul’s comments reminded me that so many public expressions of love seem overly sentimental, sappy, saccharine—the Hallmarkification of love. Great for selling greeting cards, but not capable of revolutionary social transformation.

I asked Paul to define respect. He said “to respect another living creature is to consider their feelings, wishes, rights, and traditions to be as important as your own. Since we cannot [fully] know their feelings, wishes, rights, and traditions, we must listen … to them, try to put ourselves in their place, and imagine how we would want to be treated.” It’s a great definition of respect. It’s a beautiful, potent, necessary value, a value we need for the social change we’re contemplating this morning. I like that Paul emphasizes listening, mindful that clay man’s primary failing is that he does not listen.

But I struggle with Paul’s critique of love. Love is the central value in the Abrahamic religious traditions, perhaps best articulated in the Christian scriptures when Jesus, quoting the Hebrew scriptures, says “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.  A second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[5] For thousands of years religious and spiritual leaders have challenged the powers and principalities of the world not to exploit, but to love; not to enslave, but to love; not to oppress, but to love. Our Universalist forebears preached an all-loving God who would condemn no one to hell, a love that inspired many to work for a better world in this life. So many of us who engage in social justice and antiracism work today, when asked why we do what we do, point to Martin Luther King’s vision of a beloved community. Knowing the value and the power of love in the lives of so many of our interfaith partners, I can’t find in myself any wariness towards love as a fundamental guiding value in the struggle to build a world in which there is enough for everyone. Certainly the kind of respect Paul describes goes hand in hand with a deep, abiding, world-changing love. We’re not talking about two opposing values.

Having said that, I do think Paul is accurately identifying the way in which love—or any significant value—compassion, equality, reciprocity, sustainability, democracy, justice, respect—can be coopted by capitalist settler colonialism, commodified, corporatized, manipulated, re-defined, bastardized, watered down and used to sell products such that the true power of the value, its subversive power, its power to change hearts, culture, society—that power is easily lost. When slave owners said they loved their slaves, love lost its world-changing power. When administrators at Indian residential schools said they loved their students, love lost its world-changing power. When employers say they love the employees whose labor they exploit, love loses its world-changing power. When European capitalist colonizers sailed to the Americas, Africa, India, Asia with priests and ministers proclaiming Christian love, love lost its power. It became a tool of conquest, a vehicle to promote ownership, not an inspiration for revolutionary social change. When Paul expresses wariness about the power of love, I think he is referring to love worn down, emasculated and coopted in the crucible of capitalist settler colonialism. That wariness certainly resonates with me.

All we need is love? It’s not that simple. How do we know the difference between a coopted love that regards ownership as a higher value vs. a love that boldly confronts structures of evil, a love that atones for past atrocities, makes amends, makes reparations, returns stolen lands, prioritizes the commons, a love that can be measured by the way people respect each other; the way they listen to each other, learn from one another.  Perhaps that is one of our most important spiritual tasks—to know the difference between these two versions of love, and to discard false love and embrace that genuine, world-changing love.

Jo Harjo’s poem ends in a bleak place. Rabbit has nowhere to play. Clay man has no ears to hear that his insatiable hunger is destroying the world. But we can hear (and see, taste, touch, smell). We can learn. We can change. We can be respectful. And we can bring a genuine, justice-seeking, planet- saving love to bear in our hearts, in our congregation, in our communities, in our nation; so that, in a world beyond this one, like the world that came before this one, there will be enough for everyone.

Thank you Paul!

Amen and blessed be.

[1] For information on Native American Heritage Month, visit https://nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov/.

[2] For the list of sources for the Unitarian Universalist living tradition, visit: https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/sources.

[3] Harjo, Joy, “Rabbit is Up to Tricks,” Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings: Poems (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2015) p. 8.

[4] Dean, David, “Roots Deeper Than Whiteness, Parts 1 and 2: Remembering Who We Are for the Well-Being of All.” 2021 Blog post. See: https://www.davidbfdean.com/roots-deeper-1-2.

[5] Matthew 22: 37-40.

Ancestor Day – UUS:E Virtual Worship, October 31st, 2021

We’ll Build A Land: Cultivating Relationships Toward the 8th Principle

Flipping On the Hive Switch

Reading
excerpt from The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain
Annie Murphy Paul

Human nature is 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee, says Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at [New York University’s] Stern School of Business…. In the main, we are competitive, self-interested animals intent on pursuing our own ends. That’s the chimp part. But we can also be like bees—“ultrascocial” creatures who are able to think and act as one for the good of the group. Haidt argues for the existence in humans of a psychological trigger he calls the “hive switch.” When the hive switch is flipped, our minds shift from an individual focus to a group focus—from “I” mode to “we” mode. Getting this switch to turn on is the key to thinking together to get things done, to extending our individual minds with the groups to which we belong.[1]

Sermon
Flipping on the Hive Switch
Rev. Josh Pawelek

I don’t want to mince words: there’s a lot at stake in this concept of the hive switch, coined by the social psychologist Johnathan Haidt in his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (a book I know a decent portion of you have read since a decent portion of you have recommended it to me over the years.) I recently re-encountered it in science writer Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. She argues that in our larger society we don’t flip the switch enough, and our capacity to think well suffers as a result. I’m with Annie Murphy Paul. I love her notion that there are ways to enhance our thinking by extending our minds into our bodies (which I spoke about a few weeks ago), into the natural world, and into groups of other people. Given that our ministry theme for October is cultivating relationship, I want to share with you some of Murphy Paul’s findings on how to think well in groups, how to flip on the hive switch. If nothing else, I believe her findings can help us in maintaining a healthy, growing, vibrant congregation, especially as we begin coming back together in person at what we hope is the end-stage of the pandemic.

Murphy Paul’s findings are not particularly radical. However, as I contemplate flipping on the hive switch, I encounter some inner resistance. You may as well. I suppose this resistance begins with the lessons many of us receive as children in dominant US culture: “Think for yourself.” “Find your unique voice.” “Speak Your Truth.” “Find Your Passion. Pursue it.” As a society we put enormous emphasis on individuality, creativity, innovation and inventiveness. Certainly these are prominent values in Unitarian Universalism. They are good values, and I certainly can’t imagine life without them, but they don’t immediately support a shift to thinking in groups. Hence, I feel some internal resistance.

But the resistance runs deeper than that. I’m remembering the work of the 20th-century German-American, liberal theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr (a favorite—some of you may remember—of Presidents Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter). His 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society argued that while individuals are often capable of using moral reasoning to make sound moral decisions, including transcending their own interests for the sake of the group, groups are not nearly as capable of such moral reasoning and decision-making. Groups, especially nations, ethnic and cultural groups, religious groups, and political parties are fundamentally self-interested and amass power to serve their interests regardless of how they impact other groups. According to Niebuhr scholar, Wilfred McClay, participation in “groups [makes] individuals worse rather than better.”[2] Niebuhr wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society as fascism was beginning to rise in a number of European nations, certainly a problematic version of flipping on the hive switch, an indication of how easily it can be manipulated by charismatic leaders.

Probing just a bit further, the Orwellian-sounding term groupthink comes to mind, the idea that internal group pressures can lead group members away from critical thinking, reality testing, and sound, moral judgement.[3] The January 6th attack on the US Capitol comes to mind as a recent, high-profile example of groupthink. The psychologist who originally coined the term, Irving Janis, did so in a 1972 book which analyzed the decision-making that guided a series of US foreign policy fiascoes during the 1960s. The hive switch is flipped on, but effective thinking is nowhere to be found. As I said at the beginning, there’s a lot at stake when we flip on the hive switch.

Annie Murphy Paul acknowledges the dangers. “Uncritical Group thinking,” she says, “can lead to foolish and even disastrous decisions.” But in her view, individual thinking “is simply not sufficient to meet the challenges of a world in which information is so abundant, expertise so specialized, and issues are so complex. In this milieu, a single mind laboring on its own is at a distinct disadvantage in solving problems or generating new ideas. Something beyond solo thinking is required—the generation of a state that is entirely natural to us as a species, and yet one that has come to seem quite strange and exotic: the group mind.”[4] So, yes, it’s essential that we learn to flip on the hive switch when we want to think well; and it’s potentially dangerous. There’s much at stake.

Murphy Paul lowers the stakes by not focusing on nations or ethnic or cultural groups (though certainly some cultures are much better at thinking collectively than others). She’s not talking about political parties—though they could really use some enhanced thinking skills these days. She writes a lot about classroom and work environments where people have to learn and solve problems together. While she doesn’t talk about religious institutions, I certainly am looking at this material through my minister’s lens, mindful that our congregation is a group, and that we meet each other in a variety of ways: Sunday morning worship, coffee hour, religious education classes, affinity groups, small group ministries, the policy board, the program council, all the committees. We have many opportunities for group thinking.

Most of the research Murphy Paul surveys was conducted and published prior to the pandemic, so there’s very little about how to extend our minds into online groups. She identifies some techniques for online group facilitators to make sure everyone is engaged and participating; but for the most part she writes about techniques that require us to be physically present to each other. For example, she writes about radio taiso, Japan’s celebrated morning calesthenics routine broadcast over National Radio and practiced by millions of people in schools, corporate headquarters, factories, community centers, all moving the same way at the same time for fifteen minutes at the start of the day. She also writes about military drilling, soldiers moving together in formation, sometimes for hours on end. These are examples of “behavioral synchrony—coordinating our actions … so they are like the actions of others—[which] primes us for … cognitive synchrony: multiple people thinking together efficiently and effectively.”[5] She cites studies showing that pre-school and elementary age children who engage in synchronized movement—say swinging on a swing set at the same exact rate—will cooperate and perform better on group problem solving than children who engage in nonsynchronous activity.[6]

Apparently, engaging in synchronized physical movement really does have an unconscious priming effect. It bonds us emotionally to the people with whom we are moving. It enhances our ability to communicate with and learn from them. It signals to us that cooperation is possible. One researcher said synchronization sweeps us into a ‘social eddy,’ “in which the press of our individual interests is diminished and the performance of the group becomes paramount. When we are carried along by the social eddy, cooperation with others feels smooth, almost effortless.”[7] There is even emerging evidence that as groups achieve behavioral and cognitive synchrony, they also generate neural synchrony. That is, their patterns of brain activity start to resemble each other.[8]

Murphy Paul also writes about the power of sharing attention. As groups focus on the same objects or information, as they literally gaze in the same direction at the same time, learning and recall are enhanced. She cites a study of physician teams performing simulated surgeries, which shows the more experienced teams synchronize their gaze 70 percent of the time during the procedure, compared to novice surgeons whose team members synchronize their gaze only 30 percent of the time.[9]

If, during the course of the pandemic, you have experienced a decline in your own or a group’s ability to think well in a work, educational or church context, it may very likely have something to do with the fact that so much interaction has been virtual, and we have not had the regular benefit of behavioral synchrony, of physically aligning ourselves with our friends, co-workers, classmates and fellow worshippers. We have not been flipping on the hive switch, and thus we have not been able to extend our minds into our various groups.

It won’t be surprising that Murphy Paul argues some of the time and effort we devote to cultivating our individual talents would be much better spent cultivating teams that are what she playfully calls groupy. They possess the quality of groupiness. How do we become more groupy?

First, people who need to think well together ought to engage in learning and training together, in person, together, at the same time, availing themselves of the benefits of synchronized behavior and cognition.

Second, people who need to think together ought to feel together, in person, at the same time. That is, as the group has experiences, it is important to periodically pause and invite members to share how they are feeling about the experience. Such sharing often leads to deeper dialogue and stronger interpersonal relations which enhances group cognition.

People who need to think together ought to engage in rituals together, in person, at the same time – as simple as eating a meal together prior to engaging in problem solving or even during problem solving. I love the finding that people from different companies, working on a deal, who conducted their negotiations while sharing a meal, generated on average 12 percent higher profits as a result of their deal than those who negotiated while not eating.

There’s so much more, but I’ll stop there. If you want to learn more about The Extended Mind, over the next three months our UUS:E Humanist Study Group will be reading an discussing it. That group meets on the third Tuesday of the month at 4:30, for the moment in Zoom where we will not have the benefit of synchronized behavior, but oh well. The first discussion is this Tuesday at 4:30. You do not have to have read the book to join us. Contact me for login information.

*****

Earlier I read the meditation, “In Gatherings,”[10] from my colleague, the Rev. Marta Valentín. She writes:  In gatherings we are stirred / like the leaves of the fall season / rustling around sacred trees, tossed hither and yon / until we come to rest together, / quietly, softly… /

We come to gather strength from each other. / We come to give strength to each other…. / When our hearts sing or when they frown / it is the way of compassion telling us to give. / It is the way of peace telling us / to share our gifts, / for we are happiest / and most powerful / when Love is made apparent / in and through us.”

In gatherings we are stirred. For me, these words sum up the spiritual implications of the findings in Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind. When we come together, when we gather, in person, at the same time, for worship, for learning, for conducting the business of the church, for celebration, for ritual, something happens below the surface. When we rise to sing, when we speak words in unison, when we check-in around our circle of concern, something happens below the surface. When we attend to the same object, gaze in the same direction, share the same meal, kindle the same flame, something happens beneath the surface. Somehow we think better—that’s what the research reveals. But it’s more than that. Somehow we activate an almost forgotten feature—an ancient feature—of our human lives. We merge, we mix, we meld. The interdependent web in action.

It’s not particularly radical. In fact, it’s really quite simple. But there’s a lot at stake. Our faith informs us we are part of realities larger than ourselves. Flipping on the hive switch makes some of those realities—the very human ones—more available to us. Carefully, with both earnest and playful intention, let us learn to flip the switch, to recognize and pursue what is good for the group—yes, to be groupy together—to be good humans in gatherings, happy, powerful, sharing our gifts, making love apparent.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Paul, Annie Murphy The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021) pp. 218-19.

[2] For a fairly in depth but readable overview of Neibuhr’s views, see “Obama’s Favorite Theologian? A Short Course on Reinhold Neibuhr,” the Pew Forum’s biannual Faith Angle Conference on Religion, Politics and Public Life, May, 2009. See: https://www.pewforum.org/2009/05/04/obamas-favorite-theologian-a-short-course-on-reinhold-niebuhr/.

[3] For a brief statement about the origins of the term groupthink in psychological literature, read the following preview to Hart, Paul’t, “Irving L. Janis’ Victims of Groupthink,” Political Psychology, Vol. 12, No. 2 (June,1991): https://www.jstor.org/stable/3791464.

[4] Murphy Paul, The Extended Mind, pp. 214-15.

[5] Murphy Paul, The Extended Mind, pp. 217.

[6] Murphy Paul, The Extended Mind, pp. 217.

[7] Murphy Paul, The Extended Mind, pp. 218.

[8] Murphy Paul, The Extended Mind, pp. 221.

[9] Murphy Paul, The Extended Mind, pp. 221-223.

[10] Valentín. Marta, “In Gatherings” in Parker, Kayla, ed., Becoming: A Spiritual Guide for Navigating Adulthood, (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2016).