Friday, December 30, 2005


I was all set to wade into topics theological and talk about JLA and Tillich, but right now the best I can say is that my 3 year old sees rain butterflies in the water splashing into the air off our street. A "moment of transcendence" for sure. It raises a point about the distinction between the theory of theology and the practice of theology.

I'm not sure I buy the post-modern notion that all theology is local. In general yes, I believe that context specific theories are better than over-reaching total theories. But I wonder if there might be a situation at hand akin to the relationship between quantum mechanics, Newtonian kinetics, and Einstein's relativity. Physics looks slightly different on the level of the very small, the very large, and the everyday world we live in.

I am a structuralist in orientation, and would like to see some structure to contain and explain all our different personal and local theologies. There is the tyranny of structure that tries to explain away the local and the personal to fit some grand theory of everything. And there is the atomism of the strictly personal and local that I feel UUism has spun into. And I believe that there must be something in between.

Tillich criticized both autonomy and heteronomy. He believed in a theonomy that called for justice, compassion and communion. He saw sin as all the idolatries and profanations that allowed us to divide ourselves and quit living as neighbors or sibling children of God.

And while his systematic theology is among the most dense reading I have ever done, I know that he remembered that theology must be based in that sense of reverrence and mystery expressed by my son.

There may not be a god per se, and there certainly is no such thing as a rain butterfly. But both ideas can give us a different way of living life and relating to the world even if neither is necessary nor sufficient.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Us and Them

In one of my capital punishment posts, Dan Harper asks if executions are part of a system of desensitization that make things like torture possible. I know there is some research that shows an increase in violence after publicized executions but I suspect it is pretty far down the chain of causality.

Yesterday I explored how some people need to believe that there is an other that could be controlled, incarcerated or eradicated and all would be right in the world.

An article online gave me a couple new thoughts.

In 1917 Sigmund Freud put the issue in perspective when he wrote: "In the course of his development towards culture man acquired a dominating position over his fellow-creatures in the animal kingdom. Not content with this supremacy, however, he began to place a gulf between his nature and theirs. He denied the possession of reason to them, and to himself he attributed an immortal soul, and made claims to a divine descent which permitted him to annihilate the bond of community between him and the animal kingdom."

In this light I have to reflect upon the ways we talk about reason in Unitarian Universalism. In general, my thinking is influenced by Peter Singer and his notion that sentience, or the ability to feel pleasure or pain, may be a better guideline for evaluating ethical concerns. If we can kill and eat animals because they can't reason, can I eat my racist neighbor? Of course you can still end up in situations where neither reason nor principle work well.

The exploitation and slaughter of animals provides the precedent for the mass murder of people and makes it more likely because it conditions us to withhold empathy, compassion, and respect from others who are different. Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, "There is only one little step from killing animals to creating gas chambers a la Hitler." Indeed there is. About the same time the German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno made a similar point: "Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they're only animals."

Maybe it is the Buddhist influence, but I tend to think of the inherent worth and dignity of all beings, though I find person and being to be fairly interchangeable. Also, I think there are ways to be reverential of this worth while still in a subsistence relationship with other animals. I believe that many of the indigenous cultures of North America managed to strike this balance, though I am not sure it is possible in the current food system.

I'm not convinced yet that human-animal cruelty is the source of human-human cruelty. I tend toward a joint cause of both, though I do not believe that innate human depravity is the cause. In general I subscribe to the Seville Declaration:

Believing that it is our responsibility to address from our particular disciplines the most dangerous and destructive activities of our species, violence and war; recognizing that science is a human cultural product which cannot be definitive or all-encompassing; and gratefully acknowledging the support of the authorities of Seville and representatives of the Spanish UNESCO; we, the undersigned scholars from around the world and from relevant sciences, have met and arrived at the following Statement on Violence. In it, we challenge a number of alleged biological findings that have been used, even by some in our disciplines, to justify violence and war. Because the alleged findings have contributed to an atmosphere of pessimism in our time, we submit that the open, considered rejection of these mis-statements can contribute significantly to the International Year of Peace. Misuse of scientific theories and data to justify violence and war is not new but has been made since the advent of modern science. For example, the theory of evolution has been used to justify not only war, but also genocide, colonialism, and suppression of the weak. We state our position in the form of five propositions. We are aware that there are many other issues about violence and war that could be fruitfully addressed from the standpoint of our disciplines, but we restrict ourselves here to what we consider a most important first step.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Crime and punishment

In general, I like to say there are two ways of thinking about crime and punishment: make the punishment fit the crime vs. make the punishment fit the criminal. This has parallels in parenting and classroom discipline as well.

In principal, one might say anyone convicted of murder shall be put to death. (Of course generally we do not rape the rapist or remove the hands of thieves at this point in our society).

Current criminal sentencing policy attempts to follow this principal by requiring certain mandatory minimum sentences for offenses and repeat offenses (called the Three Strikes law in California). There was a perception in the 80's that too many criminals were getting parole, and a few very horrific, high profile cases of violent crimes by parolees. So now we have a massive criminal industrial complex in California where they budget prison construction based on how many kids are born in a particular year and prison construction far outpaces the construction of new college campuses.

Making punishment fit the criminal leads to its own problems, and hightlights some issues with capital punishment as it is currently implemented in California. In principal it is a great idea to look at the offendor and their circumstances and find the most fitting punishment, but in practice this can be problematic.

An example from a school I taught at is illustrative. Once their were two students who on separate days independent of each other left the middle school campus to use a soda machine on the adjacent high school campus. One, a middle class female white student, was given a warning. The other, a Native American male student, was suspended for leaving school. So too much discretion may be a bad thing too.

For me, the main way to make sense of this is to look at what I would call a theology of crime (or perhaps sin if you don't mind the term). I learned in high school as friends of mine started doing time for petty and not so petty crimes, that the line between who were and weren't criminals was pretty fuzzy. Criminals really are you cousins and uncles and kids you grew up with. There really is no line between us and them.

Growing up in Southern California in the Reagan era, it was heresy to say so, but there is no group of them that we can just round up and kill off to solve all the world's problems. I believe this is true of crime and true of terrorism.

Sometimes I find the construct of original sin more useful than any liberal alternative in this regard. It is useful to understand that we are all capable of doing wrong and of hurting one another in large ways and small. Sometimes I feel like some UUs replace this older notion of original sin (that we are all sinners of different degrees) with the idea that those of us with the right diet, the right hybrid car, or the right jaded hipster sense of irony are somehow exempt from the capacity for evil. Within my UU community, I know one who did jail time for DUI, one whose son just got out of jail for DUI and another whose father is in prison.

The LA Police Department is sometimes referred to as the thin blue line between us and them. The Border Patrol tried to adopt the thing green line as a motto too. But all of this is misguided to me. We are them and they are us.

Indeed, the line between good and evil does not run between groups of people but through every human heart.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


I don't really mean to turn this into a blog about the death penalty, but Stanley Williams' execution was only a week ago and I still haven't entirely wrapped my mind around the experience of being outside the prison gates when he was put to death.

It is always an intense experience. My kids were very photogenic and we got a large amount of media coverage. I was interviewed several times.

About the best answer I could muster was to say that as parents, we teach our kids that two wrongs don't make a right. And it being the Christmas season, I think we can all think of at least one time when someone might have been convicted and executed without being guilty.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Killing time in California or California Uber Alles

Pealbear wrote on her blog:
Until yesterday, I'd been quite taken with my newly adopted state of California. The Bay Area seems to be a fun place to live. On my trip down to Santa Barbara for Thanksgiving, I had a real appreciation for the beauty and landscape of California.
Living in California is different. Tookie Willams was executed 15 miles from where I live now.

Like the man said, "California is a Garden of Eden. A paradise to live in or see. But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot, if you ain't got the do-re-mi."

More than once I have driven a visitor across the Golden Gate Bridge or across the Richmond San Rafael bridge and had someone ask about that buidling over there across the bay and seen the confusion in their eyes when facing the death row of "liberal, anything goes" California.

In my childhood down below what is either called the Orange Curtain or the Manson-Nixon Line, the shock to my visitors was the checkpoints on the highway where La Migra look in on your cars to see if you are white enough to drive from San Diego to Orange County or Riverside. From the San Clemente checkpoint you can just about see our nuclear power plant as well.

I'm a fourth generation Californian. I remember when the death penalty came back and I have been at the protest vigils for all but two of the executions that have happened since I moved to Northern California.

While I can recognize the desire and maybe even the occasional appropriateness of the desire to kill certain people (my pacifism is not absolute), I do not find it appropriate to let governments get into the business of killing people. Even if I am not sure about God, I will not willingly render unto Caesar the powers of life and death.

It is always intrinsically dangerous when we put the fiction (what James Luther Adams might call idolatry) of nations and states ahead of the reality of life and community.

I do not believe in the inherent worth and dignity of governments. I am a government servant and I believe that governments can sometimes serve human needs and the common good but are only justified to the extent that they do so.

I have served on a jury and appeared in front of judges. I do not delegate to any 12 of my peers or to anyone in a robe the right to decide who should live or die. This is not out of any lack of love for those peers or any potential judges (my attorney brother and sister in law would make great judges for what its worth). As an undergraduate, I studied jury psychology and the problems with eyewitness testimony and questioning (I got my only A+ in Psychology and the Law taught by Ebbe Ebbeson).

We are only human and our institutions are more so.

Rest in peace, Tookie. As we scatter your ashes to the wind may the world build the peace you worked towards. May we all know redemption and reconciliation.