HB 57: How to Shut Down a Woman’s Right to Choose

I attended the public hearing on AL HB 57 having the the misnomer of being called the “Women’s Health and Safety Act.” I had a chance to speak to this bill. Here is what I said:

Let’s be honest about what HB 57 really is about: The fiscal notes make the intention of this bill very clear. It is to shut down medical clinics–not to protect the lives of women. This bill is about government interfering in the individual rights of women having domain over their own bodies. Plain and simple. This is not about safer medical clinics. Stiff regulations with class C felony charges for non-compliance are an attempt to bully clinics into closing if they are unable to comply with the regulations because of cost factors to come up to the new codes—codes that include interfering with Doctors determining the safest course of action for their patient. Do not be deceived by HB 57 it is not about safety it is about interference in choices women make over their own bodies. Women will seek abortions whether there are clinics in this state or not. The question is will the women have them in medical clinics or in some alley as they did 40 years ago before Roe v Wade. I urge you to vote down HB 57.

There were several people who were invited to speak first in favor of this bill.  Not as many as I anticipated and those opposing this bill far outnumbered them.  Two were women with heart wrenching tales of being whisked through back door entrances and then left alone after the procedure. One woman had her abortion in 1977. The second woman’s tale was even more harrowing, claiming she had become pregnant before her wedding and her fiance forced her at gunpoint to have an abortion and then after her being coerced never saw her fiance again. She then made the claim that she can no longer have children because the abortion resulted in her having cancer three times making her unable to conceive children.

I found both of these heart wrenching stories to be poor choices to support this bill. The first one because the event took place in 1977. I was to find out by later testimony the clinic she went to for  her abortion was closed decades ago because of sub-standards. The second story because being coerced at gun point to get an abortion is a criminal offense and she is blaming the clinic instead of her assailant. Further, studies have proven there is no link between abortions and cancer.  While these stories were heart wrenching they didn’t have much credibility to address the current situation of the state’s remaining five clinics.

One of the clinic operators from Montgomery spoke to the requirement that doctors must have attending privileges at local hospitals.  She stated that the doctors at her clinic come from Atlanta and Washington, DC.   She stated that doctors that only perform abortions cannot receive attending privileges at local hospitals in Alabama.  But this fact alarmed me. No one asked the obvious question.  Why did this clinic have to rely on doctors from distant and out of state cities like Atlanta and Washington DC?  Are there no doctors already in Montgomery willing to perform abortions?

In the  abortions arranged in this state there have only been 6 deaths of women as a result.  And the two most recent deaths occurred over 20 years ago.  Another opponent stated in any other medical field this kind of statistic would be hailed as a sign of excellence.  She further stated that women are 14 times more likely to die from a pregnancy she didn’t want  than if she had an abortion.

One of the requirements of HB 57 is to require clinics to meet the standards prescribed in the rules foroffice-based procedures – moderate sedation/analgesia,” and shall meet all other requirements in those rules, including the recommended guidelines for follow-up care, requirements for recovery area, assessment for discharge, reporting requirements, and registration requirements.

However, the five clinics in Alabama never use heavy sedation and never general anesthesia. The requirements mandate that any clinic with 4 or more patients receiving moderate to heavy sedation at a time need to be able to evacuate patients via gurneys in case of fire.  The clinics maintain they never have more than 3 women at a time in recovery. The sedation used is light to moderate sedation and the women are ambulatory and able to leave on their own and have no need for gurneys.
All five clinics in order to comply with the requirements needed for moderate sedation/analgesia which they rarely use would include building new facilities because the land they currently are on does not allow for expansion.  In short, these clinics will be forced to close because they will not be able to comply with the provisions of this bill, provisions that are not warranted and have only one purpose and one purpose only: to shut down legal abortion clinics in the state.
Next up:  SB 205 Personhood bill defining the rights of a newly impregnated egg as having full rights and protection as an independently living human.
HB 57 already is preparing for passing SB 205 because  Section 2 begins with The Legislature finds  all of the following:
(4) Abortion involves not only a surgical procedure with the usual risks attending surgery, but also involves the taking of human life. 
This means the legislature in passing this law is already prejudiced in believing that abortions are immoral and those who have abortions are murderers. If this bill passes it will effectively close the remaining five abortion clinics in the state.
HB 57 will be coming up for a vote next Wednesday after there are amendments proposed and further review is made after findings of this hearing.  There will be no further public hearings on this bill before the Senate.
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Worship as Respite

Worship is like a breathing spell in a long and arduous foot race, or the hour of roll call in a prolonged and hard-fought battle: — it is altogether indispensable to sane and wholesome living— it is important enough in life to warrant the erection of classical temples and Gothic cathedrals. It is indeed so important that one finds one’s self sometimes wondering how any of us can afford to do anything but educate ourselves in this art. — To be effectively a person and thereby help others to be persons is the sum of abiding satisfactions in life. Worship in the sense of this aim is natural and necessary, and in the Great Community all mature people worship. Its objectives are not absolutely fixed as to their content.—Von Ogden Vogt (born February 25, 1879)

I came across this post at the The Liberal Lectionary.  If  you are not familiar with this new site, I highly recommend it. This site posts quotes by people who have influenced Unitarian Universalist theology in myriad of ways.

Von Ogden Vogt was a Unitarian Minister who served the First Unitarian Society of Chicago in the early to mid 20th century.  He is best remembered for his legacy of how Unitarians and now Unitarian Universalists worship.  See The Contribution of Von Ogden Vogt.

The quote listed above has my mind thinking about worship as respite.  There are many excellent texts on how we worship today and these texts include best practices as it were or various components of a worship service.  These are important technical aspects of a worship service as if that is all that is really happening.  But I have had the experience,  I am sure many of my colleagues have as well, when a service from a technological stand point ( I do not just mean the sound systems or the use of power-point when I use the word technological) bombs and bombs big time and people will come up to me and state how profoundly moved they were in this particular service. Their hearts were moved, a barrier in their lives shifted, they found strength to go back to their lives with renewed hope and vigor.

I am amazed when grace  somehow manages to work its way through this feeble vessel that contains my being to touch another’s life.  So worship is not simply a rote set of movements or acts as Von Ogden Vogt delineated the service.  It is something far more than the sum of its parts.  It is this “breathing spell” as Von Ogden Vogt calls it that allows for the individual and the community present to feel renewed, recharged, reborn before re-engaging that arduous footrace or on-going and prolonged battle we call living the day to day.

So this  question arises:  What brings people to worship together in Unitarian Universalist congregations? What gives us that breathing spell?  What offers that sense of respite?

Perhaps part of this respite comes from the notion that for one hour at the minimum is focused not entirely on ourselves but on others.  We focus on the well being of those around us.  We listen  to the words the minister or speaker is saying (or am I in denial?).  We hear songs that reflect various  angles of the theme of the day.  We are affirmed by others.  We are seen as being worthy in the eyes of others and perhaps even in our own eyes.  There has been a meme floating around Facebook that states something like  “if you are feeling discouraged go encourage someone.”

Worship offers the possibility of even  when  we are feeling low and broken our presence, our very presence can be a source of  encouragement to another to carry on.  And that act of encouragement reverberates back to us and gives us respite from our pain, our brokenness.  We do not know how our presence and some off the cuff comment can be the very breath of life another needs.  Our participation in a communal worship helps in offering this to others, even happening without our awareness.

Some worship spaces are majestic in and of themselves.  Those who have been at First Unitarian Society in Chicago’s Hyde Park know the vaulted ceilings, the stone walls, the slate floors, the commanding pulpit set high above the people seated in the pews.  The building itself inspires awe and eternal reverence of a people who came before and hints at the people who may come in the distant future.   These are the halls where Von Ogden Vogt and James Luther Adams preached.  Where contemporary ministers like Mark Morrison Reed sang choir as a child and where Bill Schulz attended when he was in seminary at Meadville Lombard Theological School.  To enter such a space where these and others have had their formation as ministers, have been influenced by such thinkers and bastions of the faith can be in and of itself, a worshipful respite that feeds and nurtures the spirit.

Worship for Unitarian Universalists is not the lifting up a deity instead worship for Unitarian Universalists is as Von Ogden Vogt suggests a time for the gathered community to celebrate life .  In that celebration of life, whether it is the joyous or the grieving aspects, we find respite  by holding up the values and the actions they promote in our lives that will make our  journey all the more meaningful.  May we all find respite for our journeys and may we find companions to aid us along the way.

Blessed

Here in the south, I often hear people say when ending a phone conversation or ending  a transaction between a store employee and customer, “Have a blessed day.”   In these contexts it seems hollow, superficial, too easily rolling off the tongue like that other saying used elsewhere in the nation: “Have a nice day.”  What does that really mean, anyway? Have a blessed day.  What does that even look like?  Would I even recognize it if I stumbled upon it?  Can another person truly determine what a blessed day is in another’s life?

But to really bless someone is much more profound.  Recently two people said things to me that made me feel blessed.  One out of the blue said “Thank you for being you.”  She explained what she meant by that and it was more than just a warm fuzzy moment.  This morning I received a text message from a colleague telling me that he was going to share a story about a conversation he had with me some eight years or so ago.  I did not remember the event but he had and it made a difference in how he lives his life on a daily basis all these many years later.  His telling me this was a blessing that not only affirmed me but told me that my life made a difference in the daily life for someone else.  We all need to hear and receive these blessings, these essential truths about our lives.

There has been several spin offs on the God made a Farmer commercial that was aired during the Superbowl.  This one linked here was for me especially poignant and affirming.  Those who know of my life’s journey thus far will recognize several of the themes in this video and I felt blessed.  Regardless of your sexual orientation or identity expression, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

So God Made a Gay Man

The late Henri Nouwen wrote a series of letters to a young journalist he met during his time at Yale University.  These letters became the book, Life of the Beloved.  Nouwen writes,

Let me tell you what I mean by the word “blessing.” In Latin, to bless is benedicere. The word “benediction”that is used in many churches means literally: speaking (dicto) well (bene) or saying good things of someone.  That speaks to me.  I need to hear good things said of me, and I know how much you have the same need. Nowadays, we often say: “We have to affirm each other.” Without affirmation, it is hard to live well. To give someone a blessing is the most significant affirmation we can offer. It is more than a word of praise or appreciation; it is more than pointing out someone’s talents or good deeds; it is more than putting someone in the light. To give a blessing is to affirm, to say “yes”to a person’s Belovedness. And more than that: to give a blessing creates the reality of which it speaks.  There is a lot of mutual admiration in this world, just as there is a lot of mutual condemnation. A blessing goes beyond the distinction between admiration or condemnation, between virtues or vices, between good deeds or evil deeds. A blessing touches the original goodness of the other and calls forth his or her Belovedness.

The world has grown colder since Henri Nouwen’s passing.  His words of blessing one another are needed now more than ever.  We are far too easily offended by others words and actions and react with violence of fist and spirit.  We have denied love’s entrance into our hearts and strike out with vehement rage when we do not get our way or when someone suggests there might be another way to living on this small planet.

I think it is okay for us to feel and even embrace the pain of our separateness from one another. I think it is okay to embrace the reality that our societal structures have molested and abused our spirits.  But in that brokenness we need to respond not with bitterness against the world but rather with humility of our humanness.

Nelba Marquez-Greene, mother of one of the slain children in the Sandy Hook shooting wrote a beautiful Valentine Day’s reflection after the death of her daughter, Ana.  She shares her experience of thanking the volunteers who were on the scene of the horrendous loss of life.  She writes:

I could see in their eyes how much their hearts were broken for me. And my heart broke for them. But perhaps that is what we need…to be more broken for our neighbor, for our loved ones for our coworkers…. and even for the people that hurt us and bring us strife. Unity. So that love can win. Respect. So that love can win. Pro-activity not reactivity. So that love can win. Empathy. So that love can win. Peace. So that love can win. Conscious, collaborative action. So that love can win. Faith. So that love can win. ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ John 13:34

This is what being blessed is.  It is being held in love and being fully present to receive that love.  With each blessing we receive comes healing of the spirit enabling us to love anew.

What’s Your Pie?

I came across a post that my friend Kat Liu wrote on Facebook.  She writes: “The other day I read Huffington Post quoting someone as saying, ‘I go to church for pie.’ To be fair, I did not read the rest of the article so maybe there was more to it than that. But the reason why I didn’t read past the teaser is because I had the same reaction that I did many years ago when Unitarian Universalism was first described to me as ‘you can believe anything you want.’ I thought, ‘That’s nice, but why would I join a group for that? I can believe anything I want by myself.’ And I can get pie pretty much anywhere; why would I go to church for it? If that’s the only thing at church that’s drawing people, [then] that’s not enough of a draw. And if pie is not the thing that’s really drawing people, then why aren’t we talking about that instead of pie?”

So the question is:  “What’s your pie?”  What is it about this congregation, about Unitarian Universalism that gets you up out of bed on a Sunday morning to come here?  And please don’t say the fair trade coffee we serve, I already know it’s good to the last drop.  I know this because I am often the one getting that last drop (smile).   But certainly that can not be why you come on Sunday mornings or any other time of the week.

It can’t simply be because of the pie or the coffee or the freedom of not being told what to believe.  These things are not very compelling.

Now you may be surprised to hear that this question is also being asked in congregations of other faiths as well.  I stumbled across a recent blog on Friday asking the exact same question.

This Christian minister listed 13 reasons[i] as to why someone would go to church.  I looked through the list and said to myself;  no, not that one, not that one either, no, that isn’t it, no,  hmm maybe, need to ponder that a bit, no not that one.  And on I went through the list.  I will come back to this list in a moment.

I found another Christian post that also answered this question.  And I found these answers interesting.  This was in the context of churches growing and churches struggling to grow.

This blogger[ii] wrote: “When I visit congregations that are struggling to grow, I hear these types of answers, ‘I grew up in the church.’ ‘I get filled up for the week?’ ‘I was baptized in the church.’ ‘My family has always gone here.’ ‘I love the music and the preacher.’ …

“When I ask the question in churches that are growing, the answers are very different. People say, ‘The worship service and sermon have helped me grow ….’ ‘The Sunday School class I attend challenges me to grow and learn more about what it means to be a Christian.’ ‘Our church is making a difference with our mission team, and we can see the difference we are making in the lives of people we reach out to.’  ‘Most people and churches turned their back on me, but this church accepted me and helped me understand … grace and love …  They were never judgmental.’ ”

Now these comments are from a Christian point of view but the difference between the two sets of answers are in my mind profound.

It was a comment on a Unitarian Universalist blogger’s[iii] post on the obverse side of this question that brought this difference home for me.   The Unitarian Universalist blog listed reasons why the person no longer attends a Unitarian Universalist congregation.   Two of the reasons she gave for not going to church were:

“I don’t actually think church is important for me right now” 

“My needs don’t seem to matter much in church “

The comment in response was the following[iv]:

“My two boys (30’s) also have a problem attending church for similar reasons……maybe not put the same way. It always goes back to one basic reason with many different facets……I, ME, MYSELF
(1) The church isn’t meeting MY needs
(2) I’m only going to church to get something for myself
(3) It’s inconvenient for ME
(4) It interferes with things I want to do

“Consider this approach: Can I plug into the church to use my gifts to help others? Can I give of myself to God and others through the church to help others? Go to church to praise and thank God for my blessings. All the good things you have come from God, including your time.”

Now some translation work might be needed here because many of us may not believe in god.   I find if I substitute the word Life that this comes close to the experience this writer is suggesting.  How can I give myself to Life and others through the church?  Can I offer thanks for Life’s blessings?  How can I show gratitude for all things come from Life, including my time?

And this was the difference between the one congregation that was stagnant and the one that was vibrant.  The vibrant congregation’s members felt their presence at church mattered. They had something to receive and they had something to offer towards the mission of the congregation as well.

Now in the three congregations that I have served in my time as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I have heard similar sentiments from people who have left the church.  They have told me that they think they have grown beyond what Unitarian Universalism can offer them.  They liked the people, they liked what Unitarian Universalism stood for, and they even liked the social justice issues we focused on as a congregation and as a denomination.  But for one reason or another they believed they had grown beyond Unitarian Universalism.    They may, like the Unitarian Universalist blogger, still identify as Unitarian Universalist just as a person who no longer attends Roman Catholic mass might still identify as Catholic.  Or they may have pursued a different faith path and claim a different identity.  Or they may have joined the ranks of the un-churched.

I admit I do not understand how someone can grow beyond Unitarian Universalism.  I hear the words but I don’t comprehend how that can be that someone grows beyond being Unitarian Universalist. Our faith is one of the more challenging faiths that I am aware of because we ask people to “work out your own salvation[v]” as Paul of Tarsus commands the Philippians.  You can’t get more biblical than that but it is one of our principles of our faith which states:  A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  This means working out your own salvation.  It is finding out what saves you from your self and being transformed into a person who is more loving/ more forgiving/ more mindful in living.  It is finding out what saves you from the coldness of heart that is endemic in our society.

But if you are coming here for the pie or for a social club or even for a refuge then you will be disappointed in time because the pie here will cease to satisfy your hunger, the social club milieu will become boring, and the refuge you sought will be undone by meeting people who believe the very things you disdain and their presence here will scandalize you.

Our faith is creedless and therefore we do not ask people to check their brains at the door nor do we ask them to check their god at the door. We covenant to be together as a people engaged in the network of mutuality which is our humanity.  What affects one affects us all. And together we can learn not only to be better people because of this network of mutuality but also in the hopes, in the trust, in the creative interchange that occurs whenever two or more people gather to create a better world filled with justice, love and equality. We do it first here and then out there in the world.

This to me is the draw of our faith.  This for me is my pie.  And frankly, I can’t do this on my own and neither can you.  I am not like the Buddha who was able to withdraw under the Bodhi Tree and receive enlightenment.  I have my moments of with drawing for meditation or retreat but I must have community in order to practice and integrate what I profess to believe.

James Luther Adams once said that church was the place where we get to practice being human.  What makes this congregation different from all other congregations in Tuscaloosa, guaranteed, is that here when you have a problem you are facing you will not hear a platitude.  You will not hear an easy answer like ‘pray more’ or ‘God doesn’t give you anything more than you can handle.’ Or ‘believe this doctrine and all will be well.’

Instead what hopefully happens is you will find people who will listen, hold you fully present in their lives, and if you so desire talk with you about the situation you are facing and assist you to handle this burden in your life. We do this in community, not alone.

And this was one of the reasons the Christian minister mentioned that made me take pause and say hmm, he wrote we go to church “because we need help to face the issues of life and faith…”  I come to church to hear and learn how I might be able to handle the issues that I am concerned about. Whether that learning takes place in the worship service or in an adult class after the service or even in the conversations we have together.

As minister, I come to be of service to each of you.  Yes, that is my professional role, but it is a role that is not exclusively mine to offer.  Each of you has this role for one another.  I know you have this role because you often minister to me in this place and you minister to each other as well. It is sometimes as simple as a smile or a hug or as profound as an insight shared in a conversation.  Sometimes this is the only place where people receive hugs during their week.  This role is multi-generational.  The children have ministered to me just as surely as the person twice my age though the latter is mighty hard to find in this congregation. (I am 56, who here is 112?)

And the other reason this Christian minister suggested people come to church and I have paraphrased it considerably, “Because we need an alternative to the constant messages of a culture [engulfed in false piety].”

We live in a culture here in the south, though it is also prevalent elsewhere, where false piety is insipid in daily conversations. From our elected leaders to the workplace, false piety is expressed with all the haughtiness of righteousness but with none of the convictions in their character. They wag their tongues in hateful disdain of others and claim they are showing the love taught by their faith tradition.  Their own messiah had this to say about them: Woe to you … , pretenders, who are like white tombs, which from the outside appear lovely, but from within are full of the bones of the dead and all corruption! So also you from the outside appear to the children of men as righteous, and from within are filled with evil and hypocrisy[vi].

Some people come to church to seek sanctuary from this kind of verbal onslaught.  But we offer no comforting balm if all we offer is refuge and not healing.  We do no good if all we do is allow our spiritually wounded to vent about this incessant verbiage that wears down the spirit.  We need to be teaching how we can love our neighbor even when they attack our values of equality.  We need to be teaching how to forgive those who hold us and others in disdain because they, too, are a victim of untruth.   And the spirit of untruth is a poisonous venom that slowly petrifies the society in which we live.  It will take a community of faith to be the antidote of such venom but this only works if the community of faith is inoculated by coming together on a regular basis and lifting up the values we seek to emulate in our lives.

I believe this faith has the antidote to this toxin. I believe this faith works best when done within community.  I believe this is a community that is worthy of committing support through membership.

You may initially come for the pie or the socialization of similar minded folk.  I hope you will stay for the community that can strengthen your spirit and your character throughout your lifetime.

I close with a story.

Once upon a time there was a family that was moving in search of a new community.  On their travels they saw a woman selling fruits and vegetables along the road.  They decided to stop and purchase some for their travel.  They asked the woman about the community they were coming up to and what sort of people lived there.  The woman asked, “Well what sort of community did you leave?” “Oh,” they replied “we left the community because they were filled with deceit and lies.  They were vicious and hurtful to one another.  The community was filled with people who were only out for themselves.”  The woman listened and replied; “Well you won’t like this community then, because it is far worse here.  You be best to go on to the next community.”  The family thanked the woman for her honesty and went on their way enjoying their fruit.

A few hours later another family who was also searching for a new community came upon the same woman and fruit and vegetable stand. They too decided to purchase some for their travels.  And in their shopping they began asking what type of community were they approaching.  The woman asked what sort of community they had left.  “Oh,” the family responded, “We came from a wonderful community.  Everyone was very helpful to one another.  If there was a need, others came forward to assist in filling it. They were people who loved their neighbors dearly and were always making sure that others were doing well.”  The woman responded, “Well, you are in luck for in this community we also seek to love one another and help out in times of need.  You will find this community much to your liking.” The family decided to make their home in this community and the community was exactly as the woman had said. May it be so and Blessed Be.

What’s Your Pie? by Rev. Fred L Hammond delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on 10 Feb 2013 ©


Violence in America

Reading: “All this is simply to say that all life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. As long as there is poverty in the world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people cannot expect to live more than twenty or thirty years, no man can be totally healthy, even if he just got a clean bill of health from the finest clinic in America. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way the world is made. I didn’t make it that way, but this is the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne caught it a few centuries ago and could cry out, ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ If we are to realize the American Dream we must cultivate this world perspective. – From The American Dream 6 June 1961

Violence in America

When I was a child in the late 1950’s early 1960’s, I remember having these emergency drills in school.   My town was roughly 90 miles from Manhattan.  If Manhattan was hit by a nuclear bomb, what would we do?  So every so often we would move all of our desks against the inside wall away from the windows and we would all get underneath them.  Poor Peter, in first grade he was too tall to fit under his desk so he had to go into the teacher’s closet.  We did this drill on regular basis knowing full well if Manhattan was indeed a target of a nuclear bomb, we might survive the initial blast but the radiation would kill us within a few days[i].

During this same time period, there were momentous changes happening in America.  The civil rights movement was occurring and from my living room in rural New York State I watched in horror as German shepherds was set to attack black Americans in the south.  I saw on my television churches and synagogues being firebombed through out the country.

And across the oceans I watched Walter Cronkite report the news in Viet Nam and saw again in black and white horror children running in the streets while Napalm flames consumed their bodies. These are the images of my childhood that are seared in my brain of life in America, home of the brave and land of the free.

And so I grew up understanding that America was under a threat. There was the threat of nuclear war the Cuban Missile crisis, the fear of race riots, and the fear of the Domino effect of communism that would cause Southeast Asia to fall.  And the only way to combat these threats was with violence or the threat of violence.

And now within the last few months in the aftermath of some of the most horrid massacres, the number one threat that is perceived is that the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, might be curtailed or worse denied.  The fact that there are people having access to assault weapons that have one purpose and one purpose only was not the fear but that we might have guns pried out of our hands.  Here is where America is drawing the line.

In Northport, AL, this past week, hundreds of people showed up at a meeting with State Legislators demanding that gun legislation already in place be repealed. They were demanding that they have the constitutional right to carry guns where ever they pleased.

Now, there really shouldn’t be any surprise at this reaction from “gun enthusiasts” as the local paper called them. After all, this nation has been at war 216 years of its 237 year existence.  There has not been one full decade where America was not in some armed battle somewhere in the world.   The longest period of peace this nation experienced is for 5 years during the Great Depression.

From our earliest days we have been at battle.  The largest and longest campaign of ethnic cleansing in humanity’s history was here in this nation.  More than half of our existence as a nation has been in the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans.  We don’t like to talk about it in such terms but what the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny policies were about in practice was the systemic elimination of the native peoples. How can this multi-generational genocidal act not shape the American ethos?

Our nation is founded on the justification of violence.   Howard Zinn in his book, A People’s History of the United States writes, “To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important—it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world.”

Our history books are written from the standpoint that violence committed was a justifiable means to get what we thought we deserved. While we deplore the violence in an elementary school and in a movie theater and what happens daily in the ghettos of America we shrug our shoulders and say, “yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important.”—but what is important is my right, my constitutional right to have multiple guns to defend my self from the possibility of a government takeover by socialists.

This is not what makes a society free. This is what makes a society enslaved—to fear—to hatred of the other—to a survival mentality of get-them-before-they-get-us culture.

So how do we change a society where violence is as much a part of living as breathing?  A recent op-ed piece by Faith Leaders for Peace, a San Diego based coalition that I helped form 8 years ago, “issue[d] this moral call for persons to reconsider gun possession and to fully appreciate the spiritual peril that ensues from the decision to kill another human being.”

The spiritual peril was never quite spelled out but I imagine such peril might have been described by Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.[ii]

My first career was working as a clinical specialist with developmentally disabled adults, many of whom had maladjusted coping behaviors.  So in my day to day work, I would be called in by staff who were having difficulties with client behavior.  They would want me to change the behavior of the client that very often had taken a lifetime to form.  No one has the ability to change another’s behavior.  But I promised to observe the environment in which the person lived or worked. I would try to figure out what happened that would result in the client behaving in such a negative manner.  Then I would suggest the staff member to change their behavior in how they interacted with the client and if they followed my suggestions, low and behold the client responded differently and their behavior changed. We cannot force someone to change their behavior but we can and we must change out own.  This means we need to begin being proactive and not reactive in our own behaviors regarding violence.

It is nearly impossible to legislate the kind of change needed to curb violence in America.  We can make some legislation changes like requiring all gun owners to become licensed in gun safety much like a driver needs to become licensed in car driving.  Or allowing doctors access to know if their patients own guns when they consider them to be a mental health risk and just as doctors can have drivers licenses revoked and keys taken away have gun licenses revoked and removed. This access by doctors is currently against the law in the State of Florida.

But opponents are quick to tell us that if we outlaw guns only outlaws will have guns. It is true legislation will not stop gun violence 100%.  But even if the reduction was as low as 25% of annual gun deaths by legislation, this is still roughly 7,500 lives saved.  Aren’t these lives saved worth legislation to increase gun safety?

Given the conservative hold on the house, such legislation will only occur with major concessions to the gun lobby who fears their business will be adversely affected by it.  Such legislation is a start but it is not the entire answer to creating a nation that seeks to turn its weapons into plowshares.

We have an opportunity as a religious body to change our own behaviors towards violence. We must begin with ourselves. It will do no good to tell our politicians to pass legislation and consider the issue fixed.  It also will do no good to scape goat the mentally ill or criminals for the violence we experience in society.  As long as we point our fingers elsewhere we are all perpetrators of violence.

As I stated violence in American culture has its roots dating back to the 1600’s with the first colony massacring the native peoples and the first boat of Africans to serve as slaves.  Violence in America is not just physical; it is also emotional, psychological, and spiritual.

As a religious community we need to be teaching ourselves how to implement the principles we profess to covenant to uphold.  Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations are not just nice words on the page but a command to teach the skills in how to develop this in our relations, not only with one another but with the world at large.

How do we handle domestic disputes within our families?  We must teach our sons and daughters that violence against women is never appropriate in any form.  Violent speech must be taught to be as inappropriate as violent behavior.  But simply stating it is inappropriate is not good enough.  We must teach our children and our adults how to choose a different way of speaking when in conflict.

There are many curricula out there that teach non-violent communication.  A good non-violent communication curriculum would also teach how to de-escalate a potentially violent scenario.  It does work; I have used this many times when I worked with clients who were volatile.  A recent shooting in a school was kept from getting worse by a teacher who had the skills to talk a student down.  Yes, it is risky, and yes it could have ended with more lives lost.  But non-violent communication is the way to go.  How much better would it have gone if this was already an integrated method to handle conflicts in that school?  Would the student have chosen to use a gun to address his pain?  Or would he have had another skill in his tool bag to use to have addressed the issue.  I would bet on the latter.

In addition to non-violent communication skills we need to ensure that we teach our congregations about the various isms in society that are also rooted in violence.  Racism, Classism, Heterosexism, sexism, ageism, able-ism all have roots in violence.  Not only do they contribute to physical violence, but also emotional and spiritual violence are pervasive in these institutionalized isms in our society.  It is important that our congregations are places where these isms are not enforced and supported.

We need to teach our congregations about micro-aggressions.  “Micro-aggressions are the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.[iii]”  This is a relatively new way of looking at the effects of isms in our daily communications with one another and how they accumulate and harm a person’s life experience over time.

As a covenantal faith, we can in the words of Rev. Alice Blair Wesley,“ pledge to walk together in the ways of truth and affection as best we know them now or may learn them in days to come That we and our children may be fulfilled and that we may speak to the world with words and actions of peace and goodwill.”

It is true that our faith is a relatively small percentage of the population of America.  But that should not discourage us from beginning this work.   There is an old adage that states a little yeast leavens the whole dough.  And so it could be for us.  We could be the yeast that leavens the society to change and transform into a nation of peace loving people.  Blessed be.

Violence in America

Rev. Fred L Hammond

Oxford Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

January 27 2013 ©


[i] http://www.nationalterroralert.com/nuclear/   This is based on the results of a 1 megaton bomb fallout at  a Distance: 90 miles A lethal dose of radiation. Death occurs from two to fourteen days.  Todays .

[ii] –Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love 

[iii] Derald Wing Sue, Microaggressions in Daily Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation.

Published in: on February 6, 2013 at 6:36 pm  Comments Off on Violence in America  
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