Wherefore Art Thou?

W.E.B. DuBois

In 1890 W.E.B. DuBois delivered a commencement address at Harvard[1] in which he tackled the issue of the impact that leadership has on society. He brilliantly foreshadows the work of Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (I and Thou – 1923). More importantly, his words ring ominously true today as we start 2017 in the United States. In the piece, he reflects on the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis:

I wish to consider not the man, but the type of civilization which his life represented: its foundation is the idea of the strong man—Individualism coupled with the rule of might

DuBois goes on to caution that:

The Strong Man and his mighty Right Arm has become the Strong Nation with its armies. Under whatever guise, however, a Jefferson Davis may appear as man, as race, or as nation, his life can only logically mean this: the advance of a part of the world at the expense of the whole; the overweening sense of the I, and the consequent forgetting of the Thou. It has thus happened, that advance in civilization has always been handicapped by shortsighted national selfishness.

Today, we are facing a New Year and a new government and sadly a new shortsightedness. The choice is stark: are we, as a society, a nation and individuals, going to be an isolated “I” or are we going to be partners in cultivating a world of “I-Thou”?

The incoming US Government administration has utilized a “post-truth”, bully posture to convince the American people that the schoolyard will be better for everyone as long as the chief punk is in charge. This has ushered in a new dark age in American idealism that finds its greatest motivation in fear…fear of exclusion from the club, fear of the other, fear of appearing weak, etc. It backs up a nouveau belligerence that has no grounding in facts or integrity. “Because I say so” has become the default bargaining phrase of the day and the “deals” that are already being struck are less about negotiation and more about coercion and self-aggrandizement. In this equation there is only “I”. The “I” of the “strong man” who only functions for himself* and the “I” of the minions responding to the source of their intimidation, each one trying to see a small part of the big bully/strong man reflected in themselves.

But there is also the dangerous “I” of apathetic immobilized malcontents who refuse to fight back because they believe the system will correct itself. These are the same people who in 1868 allowed Jefferson Davis and the rest of the Southern aggressors in the civil war to be pardoned “with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution and the laws which have been made in pursuance thereof.”[2] The result was Jefferson Davis and his “Strong Man” never being called to task for defending the institutionalized possession, abuse, rape and murder of other human beings in servitude. This laid the groundwork for the next 150 years of political apologists who still don’t understand why blacks don’t just “get over” slavery and the legacy of Jim Crow. The “I” of apathy does more damage because it is the “I” of retreat and acquiescence with the full knowledge that grave wrong is being committed. This is the same “I” that quickly defaults to assumptions of sameness as a rationale for inaction. It proudly proclaims on one hand that “All Lives Matter” and that it does not see race, but it refers to “the Hispanics” or “the gays” as if they are entirely different species. This is the “I” who will see you as long as they see themselves in you first.

But, I-Thou does not function based on sameness; it is not a filter. Instead, I-Thou is a manifestation of interconnectedness. I-Thou asks us to be in relationship regardless of our ability to agree. It says that there is no I without Thou. The great advantage here is the elimination of in-groups and out-groups and the true nourishment and safety of all. The challenge for us then today is to avoid being swept up in the wave of “Strong Man” individualism based on assumptions about how we are all the same and instead embrace the importance of being able to submit strength, individual or national to the benefit of all in celebration of our collective uniquenesses. In truth, the more the “Strong Man” abandons his relationship with “Thou”, he is not only weak, but an utter coward, afraid of his own human frailty and need. I cannot improve upon the words DuBois uses to drive home our greatest calling, particularly now at the dawn of an era that will challenge our most basic potential for interconnectedness:

What then is the change made in the conception of civilization, by adding to the idea of the Strong Man, that of the Submissive Man? It is this: The submission of the strength of the Strong to the advance of all—not in mere aimless sacrifice, but recognizing the fact that, “To no one type of mind is it given to discern the totality of Truth,[3]” that civilization cannot afford to lose the contribution of the very least of nations for its full development: that not only the assertion of the I, but also the submission to the Thou is the highest individualism.

Happy New Year!


*I have intentionally retained the limited masculine language of “he/him/his” in this piece to reflect the original language used by both DuBois and Buber from which I have drawn my analysis.

[1] http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b196-i029

[2] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=72360

[3] New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, Volume 7, Issue: 3, March, 1890, 361-374


We Are Here

Chalice FlameWe are here.  We are here as friends, as strangers, as teachers and students.  We are here, united in one word…seminarian.  A word that speaks of the “seed” of life.  We are the seeds of life of our united Unitarian Universalist movement.  We come from all over the country, all over the map theologically, culturally, economically.  Yes, we are here.

But remember, we won’t always be here.  There will come a time when we will no longer be able to call ourselves “seedlings” but rather we will bud as flowers, trees, shrubs, forests…our ideas and our efforts will have taken root, even in small ways and we will carry the direction of our shared faith as leaders, ministers, chaplains, counselors, activists.  We will not always be here.

So for as long as this lasts, as long as we are germinating and stewing in the process of formation, and as long as we are together in this shared space over these few days, let us give thanks and presence to the fact that we ARE here and able to grow side by side in the rich soil of community, that holds the nutrients of mentors, and educators, funders, family and friends…a seedbed embrace that drinks deeply of the fountain of love. 
– Call to worship for CGUUS 2013

“What was that?” I find myself asking. The first Continental Gathering of Unitarian Universalist Seminarians (CGUUS) over the weekend of October 11 – 13 was a group of about 50 people ranging in ages, races, orientations and social locations that descended like a tsunami on Harvard Divinity School and First Church Boston where we shared and learned and taught and explored many of the various sides of where we are headed as future Unitarian Universalist ministers.  Then just as quickly, we all left…headed back to our individual and unique paths.  I am writing this on a crack of dawn flight back to San Francisco where I will spend the rest of my day at work and then attempt to make my 7:30pm pastoral care class, because that’s what we do.  We left in our wake a trail of upended archetypes, broken barriers and the fragments of the ‘old school.‘  If this tiny but mighty storm of energy is truly representative of the body of nationwide Unitarian Universalist seminarians, it is clear that we see ourselves and our faith evolving into something completely unlike its past and different from how it looks even today.  In fact, a vision for change may be one of the strongest uniting factors we have.  For unlike other faiths where tradition and the ‘institution’ may require that one must be ‘called’ by the diocese or display encyclopedic amounts of Biblical reference knowledge or practice extreme self sacrificing piety or possess a family pedigree in the church, the only thing that Unitarian Universalism seems to ask of its future clergy is that we be completely different from one another and have thoroughly contrasting needs and goals.  That, and a bottomless pit of love in our hearts for people, the world everywhere and the work of ministry.

The weekend blew by.  We delighted in a spirited world cafe kickoff, workshops with UU theologian Rev. Thandeka and newly installed minister of First Parish in Malden, MA,  Rev. Christian Schmidt, discussions about the purpose, shape and direction of the Unitarian Universalist movement and the next CGUUS gathering.  This was all woven together with exquisite and moving worship and carefully and lovingly planned meals which meant that Friday evening until Sunday morning was very full and fast paced.  Maybe too full.  This was a first for all of us where we had the opportunity to intentionally meet and exchange face to face with people from other schools and other parts of the country and experience our differences first hand specifically as seminarians.  I have lived on the West Coast and in the South for much of my adult life but I grew up in the Boston area surrounded by Unitarian churches.  Yet, I was still unprepared for how different from “Bay Area UU-ism” “Boston Unitarianism” looks and sounds from the student perspective.  There were lifelong UUs, recent converts, ‘Evangelical’ UUs, Pagan UUs, Christian UUs…I heard conversation about the depth of the commitment to Humanism that permeates some of the midwest and learned that Canadian UUs regardless of their school affiliations are proudly united as Canadians above all, which was a great lesson in American-centric UU regionalism.  There was so much to experience with each other and we all wanted more time together to learn and explore.

But there was also specific work to be done.  Originally, the Reverend Thandeka had been invited to lead a weekend workshop at Harvard Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Students (HUUMS.)  The focus of the event grew and evolved into a broader vision that ultimately became CGUUS, but Thandeka was always intended to be a crucial part of the experience.  She brought a grounding and a connection to those who are already established leaders in our field and a sense of mentorship that gave the weekend an important context as it looked to the future of our faith.  Her work and perspective, which can be deeply inspiring for some and challenging for others, was a reminder that we come from an expansive history of exploration and deep thought around liberal and/or progressive religion.  She was the perfect reminder that although we have innovation and change on the brain we must take time to pause…for many reasons, if not to actively engage the powerful visionaries who have come before us.  You can’t really go anywhere if you don’t know where you’ve been.

This was just a beginning.  There have been other UU seminarian led efforts in the past (Zero, Aspire) and we come from a tradition of placing importance on the education of seminarians.  It was fitting that we started this at Harvard where some of the luminaries of our tradition began their journeys.  Still, the transitory nature of our status as seminarians presents challenges.  But today, we are uniquely positioned through the combination of how our faith looks in the modern era and our access to many, many modes of communication and interaction to build on what we’ve begun.  The best example is how the planning committee for CGUUS 2013 was spread across the continent including Canada the West Coast, East Coast and Mid-West (and yes we looked to include the South, Southwest and even the Caribbean to no avail…next time!)  Yet, we managed to communicate through Google Hangouts and email and telephone calls.  We coordinated logistics, website registration, financial arrangements and even some pastoral care for one another, without ever being face to face as a group.  Truly, when we did realize that we were all in the room together for the first time, it was more like a reunion than anything else.  This thing has both living and digital legs.

So here we are now, looking at next steps.  All of the participants are on fire with the potential that has been unleashed.  Whether this continues as just a stand alone event, or whether it blossoms into regional gatherings; whether we emphasize education or networking or if we simply become a foundation for support and collegiality; or if we become all of the above, the Continental Gathering of Unitarian Universalist Seminarians is now a reality.  We are here.