HB 50 Disenfranchises Voters with STDs

State Representative Juandalynn Givan (D-Birmingham) after hearing about a minister in Montgomery who engaged in ministerial misconduct with multiple women from his congregation and had infected several with HIV/AIDS presented a bill in the state house, HB 50, that would increase the penalty for knowingly transmitting a sexually transmitted disease (STD*)  from a Class C Misdemeanor to a Class C Felony. This was a horrible event.  Ministerial misconduct even without the transmission of disease is an act of betrayal of calling and trust from the congregation that alters the member’s lives of that congregation for generations to come. Few denominations have been willing or able to train their leadership in developing healthy boundary skills and effectively deal with the aftermath when those boundaries are broken.  That said, criminalizing transmission is not an effective disease prevention strategy.

The result of criminalizing transmission of STDs only increases the stigma and shame that already surrounds STDs and the behaviors that transmitted them.  It makes it harder for people to come forward to seek testing and treatment because they, themselves, do not want to know and risk the penalty of this law.  This is on the front end of the law.  Once convicted of a felony in this state the person is disenfranchised of their voting rights. More on this later.

For complete disclosure before becoming an ordained minister in the Unitarian Universalist faith, I was the co-founder of the Interfaith AIDS Ministry of Greater Danbury in Connecticut where I served as executive director for eleven years.  I was also a certified HIV/AIDS prevention educator through the American Red Cross for 15 years. I am also a gay man.  So I believe I come to this topic with some expertise and years of experience in preventing the spread of HIV as well as other sexually transmitted diseases.

What exactly is happening in the state of Alabama regarding STDs? It is no secret that Alabama has some of the highest rates of STDs in the country.  Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis cases are statewide double the national average and in some counties like Montgomery and Dallas, 4x the national average.  It is also no secret that Alabama, like the rest of the south, has among the highest rates of transmission of HIV in the country.

This is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed by our state legislature.  The question is how to address the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases in the state to prevent its spread.

Public Health protocol in stopping the spread of any disease is to find out the population that is most affected by a disease outbreak and to then target that community with prevention efforts that includes broad based education of the entire population about the disease and how it is and is not transmitted.  In Alabama the transmission of HIV/AIDS, already high, has been increasing every year since 2005 in young adults ages 15-29. This group is twice as likely to become infected with HIV than other age groups. Young African American males of this cohort is 10 times more likely to become infected with HIV than “the average Alabama resident” (read White).  In Alabama, African Americans are 7 times more likely to become infected with HIV than non-African Americans. African American females in Alabama are 8 times more likely to become infected with HIV than non-African American females.  I’m curious as to what happened circa 2005 that would be a factor in the upswing of infections.

In December 2011, Governor Bentley  wrote executive order number 26 forming a task force to address HIV/AIDS in the state.  No where in this executive order is the word education mentioned as a priority prevention strategy. And within the state plan that was developed, outside of mentioning the various good work done by AIDS organizations,  only one line mentions the need for education services but it does not indicate how these will services will be developed or what authority this plan has in the development of state budgets.  This is problematic. It reveals a lack of serious commitment by Governor Bentley to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and other STDs.  His refusal to expand medicaid and to find ways to increase access to medical care in rural areas of the state is troubling to say the least in light of this STD health crisis that affects over hundreds of thousands people in Alabama.

In those states where there is comprehensive sexuality education mandated to be taught in schools there is a significant drop in STDs and HIV/AIDS transmission.  In Alabama it is not mandated and if sex education is taught it is abstinent based only. Further the sexual behaviors of gays, lesbians and transgender must by law be taught as unacceptable behavior and illegal in the state of Alabama.  Rep. Todd has prefiled a bill HB 252 to remove this from the abstinent based curriculum.

According to the Guttmacher Institute review of State Policies on Sex and HIV Education, Alabama is not mandated to offer sex education, it is mandated to offer HIV education.  But here is the caveat, it is only mandated to be age appropriate not medically accurate, not culturally appropriate and unbiased, nor is it mandated to not promote religion.  Parents can opt-out their children from this education. When abstinence is the only approved method being taught STDs will soar.  This is not opinion.  This is a fact proven over and over again in the raw data.

Add to this the factors of poverty in the state. Lawrence Robey, Madison County’s health officer focused on this factor regarding the high rates of infection of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis.  “On average, residents in poorer communities are at greater risk to contract and transmit STDs because of substandard public education and transportation as well as smaller tax bases to pay for medical centers and physicians, Robey said. Likewise, wealthier counties in northern Alabama often have average or below average STD incidence.”  All of these diseases and HIV/AIDS are transmitted in exactly the same manner through unsafe sexual practices.

So any effective prevention strategy cannot simply be the tracking, monitoring and treating those infected, which is the primary focus of Bentley’s task force.  It must include comprehensive sexual education that teaches not only how to use safer sexual behaviors such as properly and correctly using latex condoms and dental dams but also relationship building skills including respecting the word NO from potential partners, how to talk about sexual history with a potential partner, and negotiating the limits and boundaries of the relationship. Without an all out concerted effort in talking honestly about healthy sexuality and how to develop positive sexual behaviors that promote health, this plan will and is failing.

Sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase in Alabama.  In 2012, the last year  the Alabama Department of Public Health posted a full year  of numbers of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis infections,  41,042 cases were reported nearly double the number of cases reported in 2004.  As in HIV rates, there is a sudden and sustained upswing in infections beginning in 2005.  What policy changes happened in 2004/2005 that placed thousands of people at risk of STDs?

The four sexual transmitted diseases I have mentioned are not the only ones in Alabama.  HPV is also high in Alabama. There is about a 25% prevalence rate in young females age 15-19 and  45% prevalence rate of HPV in females aged 20-24 in the United States!  The numbers that may already be infected in the state is outlandishly high. This STD is a cause cervical cancer that can be prevented through a vaccine.  This fact alone should result in a public health policy that mandates all adolescents before they begin sexual behaviors are vaccinated. The rates of death from cervical cancer in Alabama is among the highest in the country.  Two issues here.  The first is this is a disease that is now preventable with vaccinations but because of our stigma regarding sexual behavior we are not protecting our children.  The second issue is the access to timely medical care to treat the cancer once it develops.

There are other viruses such as herpes simplex  (HSV) that while not a notifiable disease is sexually transmitted.  There are estimates that upwards of 76% of the American population have this virus.  This infection can cause severe medical complications in a person whose immune system is compromised.  Should 76% of Alabamians be convicted of a Class C Felony for transmitting HSV?  They know they have it, it is those lip cold sores and genital sores that develop on the body from time to time.  Have they disclosed their HSV status to their sexual partners before engaging in intimacy (kissing)?

Rep. Givan’s HB 50 targets those who knowingly transmit a sexually transmitted disease to an unknowing partner with a class C felony.  Given the fact that in this state the disproportionate numbers of African Americans who are living with sexually transmitted diseases but are perhaps too ashamed because of Alabama’s cultural mores surrounding shame and sexual behavior to discuss their illness with potential partners before engaging in sexual behavior makes this bill a disenfranchising law that will potentially remove thousands of African Americans disproportionately from the voting rolls. This felony could be considered to be under the sexual abuse category of those felonies that cannot have voting rights restored after serving the sentence.  I realize disenfranchising voters is not her intent.  As an African American woman, she is painfully aware of the history of voting rights in this state against African Americans.  Her bill is one of enabling others to take revenge on their sexual partners failure to disclose with the unintended consequence of mass disenfranchisement.

The responsibility for safer sexual relationships is on both partners.  I recognize the power dynamics of this particular case and unfortunately it is a power dynamic that is prevalent in many relationships regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.  But if we are serious in reducing the spread of sexual transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS then we must, absolutely must, teach and empower women to stand up for their sexual health in relationships. But to do this we must create a culture that is open in discussing sexuality.

Our schools must teach comprehensive, medically accurate, culturally unbiased, and free from religious proselytizing.  Our schools must teach safer sexual relationship in a manner that does not stigmatize or marginalize the LGBTIQ persons in their classes. Rep. Todd’s bill HB 252 must be passed to remove the mandate to send a negative message regarding a minority of our students.  We must de-stigmatize sexual behaviors so we can talk about sex in an open and healthy way with our young people.

My denomination, The Unitarian Universalist Association in partnership with the United Church of Christ developed a comprehensive sexual education curriculum called Our Whole Lives.  It is curricula that is developed around the  core values of self worth, sexual health, responsibility, and justice and inclusivity. It is an excellent program in teaching healthy sexuality and reducing the spread of STDs and HIV/AIDS. It is just one model of many that provides the resources our young people need in making healthy decisions about their most intimate relationships.

HB 50 is not the solution.  It merely slams the jail house door on the person, nothing more.  It does not curb the spread of STDs.  There is no empowerment of the partner to take control of their sexual health only the taste of revenge which does not soothe the heart; only forgiveness can offer lasting resolution of this pain.  Plus this will disenfranchise potentially thousands of African Americans and others from being able to vote in our state.  HB 50 must be defeated as it serves no healthy purpose.  Todd’s HB 252 must be passed as it will save lives.

 

*the more current medical term is Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) since not all result in disease but because this bill uses the older nomenclature of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) I am also using this term.

Alabama Creating a Religious Jim Crow

On February 9th, same sex marriage became the law in Alabama. The grandstanding by Chief Justice Moore was a classic Governor Wallace move.  Probate judges refused to honor the federal court ruling. Marriages performed in other states are still not recognized in Alabama. Rev. Paul Hard’s case to have his marriage recognized on his partner’s death certificate continues.

Yesterday, Representative Hill fast-tracked a bill, using the infamous HB 56 nomenclature, that would legalize discrimination against couples whose relationships do not line up with judges religious convictions.  It would legalize discrimination against couples whose relationships are not recognized by religiously owned institutions.  If this bill is passed we could very well be seeing signs at court houses that say: “Straights only.” “Gays not welcomed” “No marriage licenses to divorcees will be issued.”  This bill would allow a judge to discriminate against a person  of a Non-Christian faith if the judge believes his faith is the one and only true faith. It allows the judge to stand in judgement over the Christian faiths that have welcomed and honor sexual and gender diversities as part of God’s universal love and will.  It would allow a religiously owned hospital to deny the partner, legally married, from seeing their spouse or from any consultation to the life and death situations the spouse may be facing.  Governor Bentley has already stated that he would not prosecute any judges that refuse to issue a marriage license to same sex couples, so this bill would essentially codify his intentions.

Imagine the torment already being experienced when a loved one is critically ill and the only hospital available will not allow the partner to see their loved one or to have any input into their medical care.  Imagine the exponential emotional trauma that this law will create for this family. This is what happened 50 years ago here under Jim Crow–it cost the lives of thousands who did not make it in time to a hospital that would treat a person of color.  Imagine a couple longing to experience the joys of parenthood being denied by the adoption agency purely on the basis of their same-sex marriage. Jim Crow is being resurrected again if this law is passed.  This time he wears the clerical garb of the inquisition. This is insulting and outrageous!

Read the bill as presented here.  The hearing is this afternoon at 1:30 in room 429.  A tiny room for a bill that will essentially codify a Religious Jim Crow in the State of Alabama.  We need to pack this room to over flowing to express outrage of this bill.

The original code that authorizes who may perform marriages in the state of Alabama is already Christian-centric.  It is already an offensive statute.  I have only included the language that refers to religious entities. It reads:

(a) Marriages may be solemnized by any licensed minister of the gospel in regular communion with the Christian church or society of which the minister is a member; …
(b) …Marriage may also be solemnized by the pastor of any religious society according to the rules ordained or custom established by such society.
(c) Quakers, Mennonites, or other religious societies. The people called Mennonites, Quakers, or any other Christian society having similar rules or regulations, may solemnize marriage according to their forms by consent of the parties, published and declared before the congregation assembled for public worship.

This wording is already offensive. It creates a hierarchy of religious status in the state with Christians as the supreme religion and places Quakers and Mennonites as second class Christians by spelling them out. I recognize that the attempt is to include religious societies that do not have ordained clergy but the wording here is clear, Christians as defined by the State is the state recognized faith.  It is presumed that people are of a particular Christian sect. Sections B and C are afterthoughts.  I suppose section b of the code is meant to include Unitarian Universalists, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Earth-Centered faiths, Jains, Hindus, etc. Instead it sends a clear message of Christian supremacy.

The better wording to be clearly inclusive of the diversity of faiths celebrated in Alabama would be a revision of section b and have b alone in regard to religious entities.  Marriage may be solemnized by any designated person, so designated by any religious society according to the rules ordained or custom established by such society. period.  Designated person would include the clerk of the Quaker society, it would include the Imam of the Mosque, it would include the Priest of the Roman Catholic Church, it would include the Rabbi of a synagogue, it would include lay-led congregations. It would include all faiths without giving preference of one faith over any other.

But the current wording with the legal discrimination amendment strengthens the stance that the Christian faith, defined in a fundamentalist fashion, is the only faith accepted and recognized by the State of Alabama.  That stance is prohibited by the Constitution of the United States.  And that stance creates a religious Jim Crow law in the state of Alabama.

As a minister of a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, I do not want the members of my congregation to face the discrimination that this bill legalizes.  I do not want the LGBT, Inter-racial couples, and divorced members of my congregation to experience the emotional trauma that this law will create for them.  My faith teaches me that all people are created equal and are endowed with unalienable rights, including the pursuit of happiness with a person that they love and cherish.  I thought this was a common belief among all of our religions.  Sadly, I have been mistaken.

 

Making a Case for Darwin Day as a Recognized UU Holiday

I recently attended the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford, Mississippi.  The theme of their service was Darwin Day. Charles Darwin, Unitarian, is credited for developing what is now known as the theory of evolution.  He wrote the book On the Origin of Species in 1859 which revolutionized our understanding of creation.  During this service, I came to the realization that Unitarian Universalists could embrace the idea for a recognized holiday in honor of Charles Darwin, if not in the secular world, then certainly in our faith tradition. Just as Unitarian Universalists celebrate Christmas to honor our Christian heritage, Darwin Day would celebrate our Humanist heritage.

Since 2006, Michael Zimmerman has been the proponent of the Clergy Letter Project which seeks to have congregations hold  a service that would highlight that science and religion are not opposed to one another.  And more emphatically that the theory of evolution can be embraced by people of faith.  Michael Zimmerman recently wrote an article for the UU Humanist Association urging Unitarian Universalist clergy to sign on to the UU Clergy Letter; which is parallel to the Christian Clergy Letter.  I am a proud signatory of this letter. There is also a Christian Clergy Letter, Rabbi Letter, and Buddhist  letter.

The Unitarian Universalist version of this letter begins by stating:  As Unitarian Universalists, we draw from many sources, including “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life,” and “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” While most Unitarian Universalists believe that many sacred scriptures convey timeless truths about humans and our relationship to the sacred, we stand in solidarity with our Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters who do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. We believe that religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

I am in full agreement of this letter and I urge my colleagues to consider adding their signatures in support of Michael Zimmerman’s efforts to demonstrate that religion and evolutionary biology are compatible.

But the reasons given in this letter are not the reasons that dawned on me as I listened to the speaker at the Oxford congregation on Sunday that we need to create a UU holiday honoring Charles Darwin’s work.  The reasons given above are certainly  a part of my reasoning. But what began circulating around in my brain as I listened on Sunday was how important and relevant a holy day such as Darwin Day would be for Unitarian Universalists given our nation’s shift towards religious fundamentalism. Such a declaration would sharpen the contrast of where we stand on matters of faith and science in a culture that is increasingly anti-science.  And to be clear, being anti-science is not just reserved to conservative religious fundamentalists, the recent outbreak of measles at Disney Land is the responsibility of anti-science liberals.

In addition to the sources and the principles of our covenanted association, Unitarian Universalists have proclaimed that truth and revelation is forever unfolding. Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson we propose that not one book can contain the whole of wisdom and revelation for all time.  Here in the works of Darwin is evidence of that unfolding revelation.

For Unitarian Universalists to embrace Darwin Day as a holiday not only honors the compatibility of science and religion as the Clergy Letter Project seeks to do but also highlights one of the unique distinctions of our faith–the belief that  revelation is unending and is revealed through a variety of sources–including scientific study. Our faith is based on a heritage of revelation from its earliest days to the current day. From their earliest beginnings, Unitarians and Universalists have evolved in their understandings of truth.  Today we have a statement of principles and sources for our faith which we have amended and changed as new revelations have become known.

As a people of faith, we have often been at the vanguard of liberal thought and social change–even while the majority of our members may have resisted these very changes. But individuals began with an idea, a revelation if you will, that grew into a movement that not only transformed our faith but the society in which we live.  Whether it was abolition of slavery (Theodore Parker), women’s equality (Judith Sargent Murray), Transcendentalism (Ralph Waldo Emerson),  women’s suffrage (Susan B. Anthony), or ending racism (Mary White Ovington); Unitarian Universalists have been at the vanguard of these transformational movements.  Given that Charles Darwin was a Unitarian, places Unitarian Universalists at the vanguard of the revelation that all life on this planet has a common ancestry and origin. Our faith has added to wisdom of the ages.

The movement to have Darwin Day recognized as a holiday is also an international one. International Darwin Day will inspire people throughout the globe to reflect and act on the principles of intellectual bravery, perpetual curiosity, scientific thinking, and hunger for truth as embodied in Charles Darwin.  This mission is spearheaded by the American Humanist Association.  Darwin Day is celebrated on every continent with various events.  This year’s observance of Darwin Day during the week of February 12th, the 206th birthday of Charles Darwin, has 151 events registered at their website. The mission statement of International Darwin Day is a statement that succinctly reflects Unitarian Universalist principles.

The Clergy Letter Project–Evolution Weekend has 459 congregations registered as participating in their event.  Sixty eight of these congregations were Unitarian Universalist offering an impressive 15% of the congregations listed. Impressive because we are such a small association in comparison to other faiths listed.  But if my experience at the Oxford, Mississippi congregation is any indication, there are many more UU congregations celebrating Charles Darwin’s ideas than are registered on this site.

Attend a Darwin Day event, honor our Unitarian Universalist faith by declaring that revelation is unending and new truths are being made known about the universe in which we live and new truths are being revealed as to how we might live justly with our neighbors on this planet.

Alabama, Equal Marriage is Here February 9th

Alabama is a special breed.  On February 9th the stay that Judge Granade placed on her rulings on two cases that Alabama’s constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage is unconstitutional will expire. The 11th circuit has refused to extend the stay until the SCOTUS rules in June.  The backlash has begun. First we had the the Probate Judge’s Association stating that the first ruling only applied to the couple in the law suit and therefore they did not need to heed her ruling. Attorney General Strange applied for and received a 14 day stay on her decision. Her second ruling clarified she meant the entire state must comply.  Then we have the ongoing chest beating of Chief Justice Roy Moore stating the federal courts have no jurisdiction over the state in matters of defining marriage. And now we have the magistrates and counties stating that they will simply no longer officiate civil unions of any marriages regardless of gender make-up.

“Marriage licenses and ceremonies are not available at the Pike County Probate Office,” the judge’s office said on Facebook Friday afternoon. “Pike County residents who are seeking marriage licenses can do so at any Probate Judge’s office in the state that offers that service and are not required to apply for their license in their county of residence.”

[Pike County Probate Judge Wes] Allen  said in a news release that the decision allows him to obey the law and his Christian beliefs. He cited state law that says marriage licenses “may” be issued by probate judges. “I am choosing to take the Pike County Probate Office out of the marriage licensing business altogether.”

He is not alone.  Several counties in the state are taking similar stances.  And some magistrates have reportedly resigned rather than fulfill the court order leaving a void for Monday’s enactment of the court ruling.

Before this latest protest stance against enforcing same sex marriage, I have been in several debates with colleagues within Unitarian Universalist circles, as well as with gay friendly clergy of other faiths regarding the sanctity of marriage and what we should be doing come February 9th.  Should ministers rush to the court houses to marry gay couples in a civil union when it is not a religious service?   The concern is an ethical one.  Clergy see marriage as a holy union, sanctified by a higher calling and therefore should not be a commitment that one enters into lightly.  They require pre-marital counseling.  The style of counseling varies with faith tradition.

One non-Unitarian Universalist clergy person who has been officiating holy unions between same gender couples for decades stated this is a spiritual journey that requires prayer, contemplation, discernment and the development of a covenantal relationship before entering this path together.  Therefore, on the 9th, they will only sign marriage licenses for those couples who have already under gone a holy union ceremony. This is according to their doctrinal beliefs and the state is merely catching up in recognizing the spiritual reality of their holy covenanted union.   If a couple comes to them on February 9th seeking to be wed in their church, then they will have to under go their traditions prescribed process which takes time. No jumping on the quick-marriage-ceremony-just-because-it-is-legal band wagon.

Many Unitarian Universalist clergy also require some form of pre-marital counseling.  And there have been UU clergy who are concerned with the suspension of pre-marital counseling for same gender couples when equal marriage rights are first enacted. Pre-marital sessions have been used by clergy to get to know the couple and to discern with the couple any areas of potential concerns that might need addressing in order for the relationship to thrive in a legally binding marriage.

I understand the debate.  But here is where I am in my internal debate with myself. There are factors that need to be considered.  I know many same gender couples that have raised and are raising children together. I know many same gender couples who have already spent up to 50 years together. I have a difficulty making a couple that has already proven their commitment to each other over the years  in the face of severe prejudice and down right hatred to go through pre-marital counseling as if this is the beginning of their journey together.  Doing so discounts the reality that their relationship commitment is already further down the journey than most newlyweds. By my denying services unless they jump through our unique hoops is in my mind and heart creating an injustice upon injustice.  Who does this hoop serve–the couple who has been together already through thick and thin or the minister?   For same gender couples already committed to each other for years– my role as officiant is in restoring to them the affirmation that society should have already affirmed.

After this law has been in effect for a few years and those looking to marry have been together for a brief time then yes, I will resume pre-marital counseling for same gender couples.  They are beginning a new journey together and are seeking to deepen the relationship. But it is arrogant of me to insist on this as a requirement of marriage for a couple who already have raised children together and maneuvered through their children’s experience of being taunted for their parent’s relationship.

But we now have counties where courts are saying — ‘fine, the federal courts are making courts give out marriage licenses to same sex couples then this court will not offer the service of a civil marriage to any couple.’ One court said about 42% of the couples receiving licenses have the magistrate perform the marriage. Because I am a minister willing to officiate same gender marriages, should I insist that they have a religious service which includes the pre marital sessions because that is my personal preference religiously?  Especially when they do not want a religious service and a civil service is not being offered to anyone? This is another form of oppressive coercion that is in my mind equally as unjust as Alabama banning same gender marriage in the first place.

Unlike my Non-UU ministerial colleagues, I am not bound by an ecclesiastical doctrine of marriage that requires a series of steps in order for a person to enter into marriage.  I interpret my UU faith to see the sacred in the ordinary.   For me, justice is not served when I mandate a set of religious requirements on a couple who have been denied recognition of marriage status for decades and now have the freedom to marry.  For clergy to do this is what the courts who are refusing to perform civil ceremonies are hoping for. By denying all marriage licenses to couples or denying the service of a civil union is an attempt to prevent same gender couples from getting married because they know that here in Alabama, the majority of clergy will not officiate their weddings as a matter of doctrinal belief.

Yes, Alabama is a special breed.  And I am sure even after February 9th when equal marriage is the law of the state, we will not have heard the end of this.  There will be people who will angrily protest. Judge Moore will  beat his chest some more until he is once again removed for disobeying a federal court ruling.  And the legislature will dream up new ways to circumvent the federal ruling as they have in every federal civil rights issue in the past.  Integration of schools, voting rights, and reproductive rights to name a few.

Alabama, equal marriage is here February 9th!  It is a victory but it is a victory that will come with a price. In Alabama employers can still fire a person for being gay or transgender. If there is any deterrent to marrying on the 9th, it is the injustice of being fired on the 10th.  My willingness as clergy to officiate on the 9th is not going to be one of them.

Is Justice a synonym for Vengeance?

Our second Unitarian Universalist principle reads We … covenant to affirm and promote:  Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. On Sunday, I visited the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tupelo, MS; a small lay led congregation.  The speaker was discussing this principle by asking questions about the meaning of these words.

One comment made was that when we hear people in society demand justice it is usually in the context of condemning the person who has grievously wronged another. Is this justice?  We want justice for Michael Brown.  We want justice for Eric Garner.  We want justice for the hundreds of others unarmed men and women whose lives were cut short by police officers.  Is it justice, true justice, to bring the cops to trial and seek condemnation for their actions?  I understand the emotional surge behind these cries for justice.  I understand the racism behind these brutal acts of violence.  But will prosecuting a handful of police change the system that targets young black men?  Will it bring justice and healing to the heart of the families who lost their children, husbands, brothers, too young and too soon?

I have read that when families watch the murderer of their loved one executed the pain of grief is not abated by the justice meted out.  I have read they feel a bitterness take firm root in their hearts.  Justice in this manner does not always yield to peace of heart for the survivors of such violence.

I believe the police need to be held accountable and prosecuted for their disregard for another’s life. I simply do not believe that doing so is going to create justice with a capital J because condemning others is not a healing justice. When we scream we want justice, we want those who have committed heinous acts to suffer a severe consequence for their actions. It is not justice we want.  We want blood for blood.  It does not prevent another mass shooting, or terrorist bombing, or even another police officer from exerting excessive force (a twisted euphemism for torture and murder) on an unarmed person. Prosecute yes, but this action does not necessarily create Justice in the system.

My heart grieves that in this country we incarcerate nearly 7 times more blacks than whites. Roughly 9% of our Black young men are in prison. Our nation incarcerates 23% of the world’s prisoners. This is a horrendous wrong that needs to be addressed.  But how do we address it so that not one more young black man is targeted simply because he is wearing a hoodie or walking in his family’s neighborhood with his friends? How does this nation of laws enact justice when the system itself supports injustice?

When we target a specific population for alleged crimes, it is no longer justice that is the motivator but rather the motivation is maintaining power over a population. Power over others is how justice becomes twisted and deformed.  It is this perversion of justice that we are seeing in our nation today.  Convicting with inflated felonies and incarcerating a skewed percentage of a population removes the power of the vote from the population.  This is an act of oppression not justice.  We continue to pass new laws that expand the oppressive weight on a specific population.  The unjust revival of debtor’s prison is part of this expansion of an oppressive weight. This is good news only for the for-profit prisons looking to expand their industry.

Creating a for-profit business around incarceration is not providing justice–it is exploitation. For-profit prisons are an insatiable beast that craves more incarcerations.  So those who believe that the answer to our overcrowded prison system would be to be build more prisons, especially those of the for-profit ilk have a very twisted and deformed sense of justice. These corporations have a need to have laws passed that criminalize more people in order to keep their prisons filled to adequate operating levels. This is not justice, this is creating a market for an industry.

When Al Qaeda hi-jacked passenger jets and slammed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon killing 3,000 people.  We demanded justice.  And in our anger the United States of America invaded two countries to bring justice to the lives lost. In the seeking of justice American and coalition forces lost 8,259 lives and the number of Iraqi’s lost is over 206,000.  Up to another 20,000 Afghan citizens are estimated to have lost their lives in that long war.  But was this really justice or revenge?  It was the latter.  The ongoing struggle of this region to stabilize and rebuild is not going to end any time soon.  Again, we did not mete out justice, we meted out vengeance and created enormous suffering that will endure for generations. We are seeing the consequences of our vengeance with the rise of ISIS.  We exacted suffering 78 times greater than what we experienced and upon the wrong countries if there even was a country that deserved such retribution.

What does it really mean in one of my favorite hymns, We’ll Build a Land when we sing  “where justice shall roll down like waters?” Are we seeking justice or exacting vengeance on our enemies?  In the context of Iraq it was surely the latter.  Vengeance was indeed a terrible swift sword and it cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives before we found and killed the person responsible for that terrorist act. If justice is a synonym for revenge and condemnation, then we have to find another word for our second principle because I don’t think it means what we think it means.

However, when I read our second principle, I think of what it might mean to love my neighbor as myself.  What does it mean to do unto others as I would have them do unto me?  What does that look like in my daily encounters with others?  I look first to the macro level. Am I being as loving as I can be in this moment?  Am I being generous in thought and deed?  Am I seeking to understand rather than be understood?  From here, I expand beyond those I know in my circle to those beyond my circle.  How do my actions relate to the neighborhood? the larger community?  How might I expand this notion of loving my neighbor to the larger community?  Then I begin to think about the systems I live in.  How do these systems limit the way we live?  How do these systems expand our ability to breathe?  How might I work to change these systems to be more inclusive in the ability to breathe free?

Justice then is not the exacting of revenge on a wrong committed.  Justice is a humble act of living day to day.  What does Life require of you?  But to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with this gift of Life.    (Micah 6:8 paraphrased)

 

Ethical Responsibility of Corporations

I am reading Lead with Humility by Jeffrey A. Krames.  It is about the leadership style of Pope Francis.  I barely read through the prologue when I came across a quote by Peter Drucker who wrote in his 1946 book, Concept of the Corporation, the following:  “If a social institution operates in such a manner as to make difficult or impossible the attainment of the basic ethical purposes of society it will bring about a severe political crisis…” 

This quote made me pause.  I have long stated that corporations and businesses are to serve the society and not the society serving the corporations and businesses.  There is a moral and ethical responsibility of corporations to use their entities to uplift the well-being of the society.  Corporations do this by using a portion of their income to provide health insurance, generous vacation time, paid family leave, and wages that allow the workers to have dignified employment and access to good education, homes for their families.  Such a perspective increases worker loyalty to the corporation, increases motivation to create excellent products and services for the corporation, and uplifts the community’s well-being in which the corporation is located.

This has not generally been the philosophy of corporations in the late 20th and early 21st century.  Remember the crash in 2008 that if we didn’t bail out the financial institutions we would have spiraled into a world wide depression.  A crisis that is still rocking countries like Greece seven years later.  Drucker’s quote can be directly applied to this crisis because Wall Street’s greed did indeed create a severe political and financial crisis for everyone.

Drucker’s quote does not seem to be part of the philosophy of the Koch Brothers or the Walton family.  They use their corporations to increase their self-interests of power and influence to bend society towards their likings and image. Koch Brothers plan to spend 889 million dollars on the 2016 elections. This is to bend the government towards their will, not to benefit the welfare of the people.  Imagine the number of scholarships to colleges this could have created for the working poor. Imagine the number of school lunches this could have provided.  Imagine the number medical visits for veterans this could have covered.

The Walton’s Walmart corporation refusing to pay living wages and reduced employee work hours has forced their employees to be below the threshold of Walmart paying for health insurance.  To add insult to injury Walmart has even taken out life insurance policies on its employees so Walmart will benefit in case of death. Even though Walmart eventually paid millions to employees in a class action suit, this practice continues in many corporations and financial institutions.  It would have been wonderful if the family benefited–tax free- as the corporations do when they collect from such a practice. “St. Peter don’t you call me, cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.”

Now if you’re thinking, this is just how businesses are supposed to run in America.  Profit is their bottom line after all.  Think again. This is not how all businesses run and businesses who run differently still make substantial profits.  Take for example Red Frog Events based in Chicago.   Here is a list of their benefits to their employees:  Full medical, dental, and vision for employee and family; unlimited vacation days (that’s right unlimited); One work from home day per week; matching 401K retirement plan; paid parental leave; one month paid sabbatical after 5 years of full time employment.  Red Frog Events has created a culture where the dignity of the employee is supported.

Joe Reynolds, founder of Red Frog Events states his reasoning for unlimited vacation time this way:

Through building a company on accountability, mutual respect, and teamwork, we’ve seen our unlimited vacation day policy have tremendous results for our employees’ personal development and for productivity. There. I said it. I think Red Frog is more productive by giving unlimited vacation days. Here’s why: 

  1. It treats employees like the adults they are. If they’re incapable of handling the responsibility that comes along with having unlimited vacation days, they’re probably incapable of handling other responsibilities too, so don’t hire them.
  2. It reduces costs by not having to track vacation time. Tracking and accounting for vacation days can be cumbersome work. This policy eliminates those headaches.
  3. It shows appreciation. Your employees will need unexpected time off and some need more vacation than others. By giving them what they need when they need it, you show your employees how much you appreciate them and they reciprocate by producing more great work.
  4. It’s a great recruitment tool. We hire a mere one out of every 750 applicants at Red Frog. When you combine fantastic benefits with a positive culture, it’s noticed.

And his rationale for paid sabbaticals this way:

  1. 1. Everyone needs to recharge. Frogs can disconnect for a full month every five years. A month away allows enough time to come back hungry to tackle the next big project.
  2. Appreciation goes a long way. I give tremendous latitude, sabbaticals included, and it’s appreciated. People who love their job perform better.
  3. They gain worldly perspectives. Learning new cultures only helps bring fresh thoughts to the table on your next project.
  4. Valuable family or friend time. Red Froggers flat-out work hard. A month away every five years allows time to reconnect with a loved one.
  5. Going outside of your comfort zone elicits unconventional ideas. Being away for a month breeds creativity. My best ideas come during extended time away.

Yes, Red Frog is not the norm when it comes to treating employees with respect, but I guarantee that their employees are happy at what they do and are willing to do whatever they can to keep their employer happy; including working hard on insuring successful events across the globe.

But more importantly, not having to worry about the stresses that life will throw at a person enables them to be happy in the society at large. They are less apt to go off the deep end and go on a violent shooting spree or come home to kick the dog to vent frustration.Corporations that take care of their employees well-being will in the long run have products and services that are top notch.

Imagine if this was the norm in our society in regards to how we treat our employees what a positive difference in our society there would be. We would not be pushing up against the edge of another financial crisis–because Wall Street has not learned their lesson.  We would not have corporations using money as speech because they would be using money to support the welfare of their employees, the people who make their products and services.  Crime would be down because basic needs would be met. We would not have the get mine first attitude that is rampant in America.  We would all be able to have a life style that was filled with less stress and worries.

I’m not talking about creating utopia.  Utopia is an illusion.  I am talking about extending accountability, mutual respect, and teamwork beyond the companies like Red Frog Events and into being a cultural norm.  That cultural norm is indeed within the realms of possibility.  If one corporation can do it, all corporations can do it.

Pope Francis said it this way:  “It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education, and healthcare.”  But as the pontiff also noted, it is not enough to just create structural changes, there needs to be new convictions and attitudes that will sustain such a structural change or sooner or later those structures will become “corrupt, oppressive, and ineffectual.”

2015

Who is this mythical person christened
Twenty-fifteen? A babe in swaddling clothes
at birth, a decrepit hunched being come
final hours of December thirty-first.
Its destiny is the same as yours/mine.

What type of life will Twenty-fifteen live?
As with all newborns we dream wishful hopes
anticipating, desiring, longing
for something better; something wonderful.
The life it lives depends in part on us.

How well we embody our principles—
how well we choose to seek to act justly —
how well we choose to share loving kindness —
how well we walk humbly throughout our days.
Live this day, this hour as the best moment,

as if our December thirty-first draws
near as it must for all creatures on earth.
Who then is this mythical person born?
Twenty-fifteen is our measure of life
Fill it with love, generosity, grace.

© 2015 Fred L Hammond

On the Seventh Day

Creating a universe
filled with galaxies filled
with solar systems made
of comets and planets
with self-sustaining life
forms and sentient beings
expressing awe. This feat
is worthy of the long
pause or even a Sabbath.

© Fred L Hammond

Expectance

I posted on our Unitarian Universalist Facebook page this question: Imagine that the world never heard of Jesus or Christianity. And imagine that this December 25th is the birth of a special child destined to ‘save’ the world. What would you expect from this child’s life? The posting had been seen at least 27 times but only one person chose to respond to the question.

While the reasons for not posting by the other 26 people are most likely many and multi-layered, I found the lack of response telling. These past few months have been rather harsh on the American psyche. What we thought true has been proved untrue. What we thought honest has been proved dishonest. What we thought valiant has been proved cowardly and dastardly.

There is much happening today to make one’s heart sink with despair. Will we ever get it right? Will we ever as a nation truly embody our values of democracy, freedom, and justice for all? 2014 will go down in history as a violent year for our nation. We were confronted to see how little we value black lives in this nation. And the truth sent us scurrying to our safety net of stereotypes of the other. We were exposed to the truth of our nation committing unthinkable acts of torture to satisfy the morbid curiosity of two behavioral psychologists who wanted to discover how to impose helplessness and subservience in others. And this truth increased our use of euphemisms. Others commit torture we do enhanced interrogation techniques, EITs because even our euphemisms need euphemisms. Horrendous pills to swallow. How can we continue with all of this misery that we have inflicted on one another?

And then the unexpected happens. Members of this congregation announce the birth of their grandchild. In the midst of despair, a baby is born to bring joy. The mystery continues.

What will the generations say about this birth? Will they say it was on the darkest day of the year that a mighty wind blew a cleansing breath across the land when this child was born in the state of Georgia? Angels appeared in the lightning and thunder calling this child forth into life. And word of the child’s arrival spread across the people faster than the speed of sound and all shouted Hallelujahs! For they have seen the one in swaddling clothes who will bring healing to this land. Future generations will speak of this child’s birth from the perspective of knowing the whole story of their life. Just as people speak of the Christ child’s birth of long ago.

Well, we don’t know what their life will be as they grow in wisdom and stature. And we don’t know what stories will be told about their birth decades from now. But within this newborn lies not just a hope but the very real expectation that lives will be changed because of their being in this world. Lives already have been.

And that is where our hope is restored. We tell the story of Christmas because it is a child who comes forth to teach us about loving one another. The presence of children raises the oxytocin levels in our bodies. Oxytocin is the hormone that bonds mother and child, families, tribes together. It is what makes us a gentler people to each other. The presence of children playing reduces stress. It makes us a more generous people. The celebration of Christmas is not just for the children, adults need to celebrate a child focused holiday as well.

And the basis of hope is there because we do not know how any child’s life will unfold when they are born. The hope is in the potential within the coming days and weeks and years offered to this new child. What experiences will this child have that will nurture them into being loving and kind, brave and honest, ethical in their decisions? The experiences to be had are where all of us come in.

I do not believe that Jesus became the teacher and the transformer of lives by some supernatural force alone. To me stating Jesus became the teacher he was, solely because god willed it so, negates the human potential to evolve into moral and ethical creatures. Such a statement places despair right back into the picture and declares that outside supernatural forces are required to transform humanity. And my stating we each are born with the human potential to be more than we are currently, does not negate the power of faith in a person’s life. The truth is Jesus had parents, and siblings, and aunts and uncles, and cousins like John the Baptist, teachers and mentors that helped shape his life’s path. These lives helped give him the fortitude to stand firm and embody the belief that there was a better way to be than to debase and torture others.

So it is with us. If we are honest with ourselves we each have had someone in our lives; be it for a life time, a season, or a day, whose life example offered us a choice in being who we are today. We are the ones who must hold fast to the values inherent in the premise of loving our neighbors as ourselves and teach these values, embody these values in our daily lives to our children. Perhaps one of our children will grasp the mystery to creating peace and goodwill to all and heal our divisive land filled with racism, greed, and torture. May this season renew our expectancy for what could be and offer us the courage to work towards that vision.

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa by Rev. Fred L Hammond 24 December 2014 (c). 

A Retelling of the Birth of Jesus

This is a story of mystery and intrigue. All stories, even the story of your own life, begin with mystery and intrigue. For no one knows at the beginning of the story how a story will end, no one, not even those living it.

This story begins in a distant land, across the oceans, across a mighty desert, during the 59th year of the Roman Empire founded by Caesar Augustus. He established rule over all the lands that surrounded a mighty sea. He declared a time of peace across this empire as he had subdued all the peoples and tribes who lived within his empire. But there was one province where there was still great unrest, Judea. The people who lived there were a proud people with a belief in an unseen and mysterious God. These people longed to be free of Rome. They wanted self-rule and they longed for a leader who would fulfill this promise. But any such talk of a leader brought the wrath of Rome, which took many forms in those days. An innocent traveler could be doing Rome’s and Caesar’s bidding. So people were afraid of strangers.

It was during this time of uncertainty that Caesar Augustus called for an accounting, a census of all the people in this region. This census included a tax to further burden the people of Judea and to not register and pay the tax would mean fierce punishment. People were angered and resentful of this decree.

Now Joseph and his betrothed, Mary lived in Nazareth but the census required them to leave their home and travel to the town of Joseph’s ancestors, to Bethlehem. Traveling through the Desert Mountains was treacherous in those days and Mary was expecting a child. When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, it was time for her give birth.

They looked for a place to stay. But at every inn they received the same reply—no room. Finally, an innkeeper seeing Mary was in labor offered them to stay in the stable behind the inn where there was hay for bedding and shelter. In the wee hours of the night Mary gave birth to her child, whom she called Jesus.

Now none of this story thus far sounds mysterious. But what happens next is indeed mysterious.

In the hills not far away from Bethlehem there were some shepherds keeping watch over their flock of sheep. And a bright light appeared before them and in this bright light was what appeared to be an Angel. Now most people have never seen an angel so the shepherds were filled with fear and trepidation. That means they were quaking in their boots. But The Angel shouted, Do not be afraid. For I bring you news of great Joy for the people for today born this day in the city of David (the Angel was referring to Bethlehem. Angels often speak poetically.) a savior, who will be the messiah. You will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. And suddenly the whole sky was filled with Angels singing Glory to God and peace and goodwill toward all people. Then the angels vanished, just like that. (snap fingers) The shepherds still very much in shock decided they should go to where the babe was born. When they saw the child just as the angel had said, they bowed deeply before the child.

But that is not all that happened when this child was born. There was yet another mysterious thing to happen. Wise ones known as the Magi were scanning the heavens for a sign to offer them hope in these treacherous days. And a new star appeared in the heavens. They saw this star as an omen of a great person being born who would lead them to new freedom and decided to travel from the east to offer their respects to this new leader. As they drew near this new star in the heavens seemed to rest directly over the place where this new child was born. They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts they presented to the child. They also bowed down before this child and declared him a king of Kings. How very odd for strangers to give such gifts and to say such things to a child born in poverty, born in a stable.

Word of this child’s birth spread through the region and had reached the ears of the magistrate of the province. He wanted to find this child so he too could pay his respect but Joseph had a mysterious dream which warned him that the magistrates’ intentions were to harm the child. And Joseph, Mary, and the child fled to a neighboring province until it was safe to return. All of these events were very mysterious. Mary, the mother of this child, held these mysterious events in her heart. She wondered what is in store for this child with such a mysterious beginning to summon angels and wise ones. And we wonder today at each new birth what wondrous things will unfold through their lifetime.

Written by Rev. Fred L Hammond (c) 2014

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