Monthly Archives: July 2008

Yuniterian: The 19th Century Japanese Unitarian Journal

Here is a picture of the cover of the first issue of Yuniterian, the journal published by the Japanese Unitarians beginning in 1890 (Japanophiles will be interested to note that the title is in hiragana–this was before katakana became the standard for foreign borrow words).

Front cover of Yuniterian issue 1

Front cover of Yuniterian issue 1

Yuniterian was renamed Shuukyou (“Religion”) in 1891, and merged with Rikugou Zasshi (“Cosmos Journal”) in 1898, by which time the Unitarians had come to dominate Rikugou Zasshi. The Japanese Unitarians were a mix of Buddhists and Christians who approached Unitarianism as a religious impulse or set of principles, rather than a separate denomination. They used Unitarian ideas to reform Japanese religion, making it more rational, modern, historical, and activist. Never touching the grassroots, the Japanese Unitarian movement nonetheless had a significant impact on the intellectual class as they sought to bring Japanese society up to speed with the West at the turn of the century. Many worked toward combining Buddhism and Unitarianism into a new religion of the future that could become the national religion of Japan. This plan finally faltered when the Unitarians refused to disavow Unitarianism’s specifically Christian character. Later, the partially Unitarianized reformist Buddhisms were eventually exported to the United States and Canada, and now that Unitarianism has indeed ceased to be a specifically Christian denomination, some of that Unitarianized Buddhism has proven to be highly attractive to contemporary Unitarian-Universalists, completing the circle.

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Rethinking GA Security Checks in Light of the Knoxville Attack

Bill Baar raises the issue of security at General Assembly in the comments on the previous post, about the long history of violence against Unitarian-Universalists.  While no one wants to get hysterical over this, he may have a point.  Many UUs condemned the mild security checkpoint at the port of Fort Lauderdale, where GA was held last month.  Some went so far as to boycott GA entirely.  The issue was that police officers checked the photo IDs of adults at the door–and while only the tiniest fraction of adult UUs lack a qualifying ID, it was seen as part of a creeping surveillance culture, prone to inappropriate profiling, and discouraging to theoretical non-ID owners who might want to join in the event, such as illegal immigrants.  Even among those who didn’t mind the security check, pretty much no one expressed pleasure at its presence.

Has that changed?  Were some UUs living in a fantasy world before last Sunday’s attack on the Tennessee Valley UU Church?  Many American schools have security checkpoints and metal detectors today.  Many governmental offices and other buildings do too.  Security checkpoints at sports stadium are routine.  There are synagogues with them, probably churches as well.

UUs have always been targets for violence, but the last decade has been relatively quiet, so perhaps folks have gotten complacent.  The truth is that we live in a dangerous world, with rightwing nuts who intend to fire 76 shotgun rounds into a UU youth performance of Annie.  For every one who goes over the edge and pulls the trigger, there are many more close to that edge who may eventually tip as well.

Which brings us back to the GA security checkpoint.  Putting aside the theories about exclusion, we may ask, did it keep people safer?  That is the stated point of a security checkpoint, after all.  Suppose the man who attacked TVUUC lived in Florida and had targeted GA instead (indeed, no greater target for someone of his mentality could be imagined–thousands of the leaders and committed members of the most liberal denomination in America, all packed into a single public building).  It is possible he would have made it past the checkpoint.  After all, he probably owns photo ID.  But perhaps his guitar case would’ve been searched or his camera bag, in which case the shotgun and shells would’ve been discovered immediately (officers weren’t officially searching bags, but are empowered to ask to look inside them if someone is acting suspiciously).  Or his unstable attitude would’ve been noticed and he would’ve been pulled aside, or at least given greater scrutiny.  Even if he didn’t do anything to flag attention to himself, the presence of the checkpoint might well have been a significant deterrent, encouraging him to take his murder elsewhere.  Obviously, this is only speculation, but it seems legitimate to conclude that the GA security checkpoint that so many decried most likely helped to prevent a massacre like TVUUC experienced.

So, should there be a similar security checkpoint at GA next year?  An even tighter one?  Should GA have security checks from now on?  UUs have consistently contextualized security as the enemy, as an oppressive infringement on their rights, whether it be because of alleged age/race/class discrimination or intrusive government monitoring.  Can UUs learn to see security in another light, to see the other side of the equation?

The Fort Lauderdale security checkpoint was designed to prevent terrorism.  Terrorism is precisely what occurred in Knoxville this week.  No one ever wants to see a metal detector and guards at the entrance to a church, like a chilling embodiment of that UCC ad that ran a couple years ago.  The whole idea is disturbing, even repugnant.  But so is the alternative scenario, as we witnessed.  It is time for UUs to have a more informed, contextualized, and realistic discussion about security measures at churches and events.  The answer may not turn out to be security checkpoints, but surely keeping heads in the sand so as not to offend liberal values isn’t going to make people safer either.  The simple truth is that you are safer sitting at a Dallas Cowboys game or on an airplane or in a courthouse than you are sitting in a pew.  Perhaps some thought should be put into balancing that situation a little better, or at least articulating a decline toward security in a dangerous world that goes beyond knee-jerk reactions.

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A History of Violence Against Unitarian-Universalists

Sunday’s terrible attack on a Unitarian-Universalist church is, sadly, only the latest in a long history of violence against UUs and UU institutions by rightwing terrorists. One chapter in this history was discussed here last month, the bombing of Rev. Brooks Walker’s house in 1965. But there have been many incidents since Walker, as well as plenty before the attack on his home, and the tragedy at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church will likely not be the last.

Domestic terrorism has been an ongoing threat to Unitarian-Universalists because they tend to embody cutting edge trends that society is slowly, painfully moving toward. The issues change through the decades–integration, civil rights, women’s rights, pacificism, gay rights, environmental conservation, universal healthcare, religious pluralism, and so on–but the Unitarian-Universalists remain ahead of the pack year after year. Even though society generally catches up with them in time (by which point the UUs have typically already moved ahead once again), being on the fringe of the mainstream is a dangerous place, in America and in most any country. At various times and in their homes, churches, and out in public, UUs have been beaten, stabbed, shot, or blown up simply for their beliefs, and there is no reason to assume this will ever come to a complete end.

Attacks such as the one in Knoxville are another reminder of UUism’s double status. On the one hand, it is a majority white denomination with high levels of education and income: UUs have been cultural gatekeepers for close to two centuries in America. On the other hand, it is a minority religious movement that has had legal and paralegal power employed (at times violently) against it in a discriminatory manner many, many times in that same period. Though times are changed and UUs are now allowed to testify in court, hold governmental positions, and enjoy other rights once legally denied them, a fundamental danger remains when one is a religious minority in America. This is the irony of UUs as privileged minorities–privileged, yes, absolutely, but also unquestionably a minority group and imperiled by that fact, forced to guard themselves in some social situations and aware of a threatened-outsider status that the majority never has to think about. It is something many birthright UUs became aware of on the playground long ago; for others who came to UUism as adults it may be a sobering realization to discover that in accepting fellowship they moved from a comfortable majority into a minority group targeted irregularly for hate crimes.

These are the perils of liberalism in America. If you believe in love on a wide scale, your life is in danger. Maybe not extreme danger–most UUs thankfully will never face the horror the parishioners in Knoxville did–but a real, underlying level of never-quite-escapable danger nonetheless. If you believe in religious freedom and tolerance, your life is in danger. If you believe that all people should have equal rights before God and under the law, regardless of whether they look or think like you, your life is in danger. If you really believe in many of the principles America was founded on, believe in them as living facts to be embodied and not just given token lip service, then your life is in danger. If you are a Unitarian-Universalist, your life is in danger every day. And if you take your family to church with you, you imperil them in the process. That is the reality, something the shooting on Sunday did not create, but merely reminded us of.

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UUism = Marriage in NYC: The Answer to Today’s Quiz

Today’s UU Trivia Question of the Day asked what topic and location come up in most of the top hits when you search for information about Unitarianism in Japanese.  Using Google Japan and the katakana term for UUism, the large majority of your hits will send you to pages dedicated to wedding venues.  Time and again you will find All Souls Unitarian Church on the Upper East Side extolled as an excellent place for a Japanese couple to have a traditional American wedding.  If the number of hits on so many different pages is any indication, All Souls must do a pretty healthy business in Japanese vacation marriage ceremonies.

It is common for Japanese young people these days to have an American style wedding, in a Christian church with a white dress, tuxedo, flowers, minister, organ, maid of honor, etc.  This is not seen as religious but as Western, aka cool and modern.  The people themselves are rarely Christian and sometimes the “minister” is merely an actor hired for the part (not infrequently in Japan there are unordained foreigners who make a living by posing as ministers at Christian-style weddings).

What does it say that most Japanese searching for information on UUism will only be shown the rather high-church architecture of All Souls and invited to spend their money on a luxury wedding?  These sites make no differentiation between UUism and mainstream Christianity; it is highly doubtful that the Japanese wedding planners who promote the church venue have any understanding or interest in the differences.  No significant religious information is carried on such sites.  So perhaps people are left with the impression that UUism is just some small sect of Christianity, with pretty, traditional churches that are eager to make money on tourists.  If you want information about UUism as a living, particular religion, you must did much deeper into the internet; actually, no matter how far you go, if you’re restricted to Japanese you will not find much.

The Unitarians and the Universalists both ran missions in Japan, with the Unitarians in particular being partly responsible for important social, religious, and educational innovations in Japan’s lurch into global modernity.  Unitarian-Universalists, on the other hand, have not organized Japanese missions, and the religion that was once a key player here has become utterly obscure, a word not one in a thousand Japanese could even recognize.

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UU Trivia Question of the Day #51

Transient and Permanent remains on semi-hiatus due to intensive summer research projects. Expect to see it back in full swing when the new semester starts in September. But for now, here is a UU trivia question with an international slant for you.

If you were living in a non-Anglophone country and happened to hear about Unitarian-Universalism, you could find yourself stymied as to where to get additional information. Obviously, the internet is one possibility, assuming you have access to it. But the info you receive in a language other than English may or may not paint an accurate picture of what UUism is like.

Let’s take one example from a culture that has hosted influential Unitarian and Universalist missionaries in the past, but is not currently a very active mission field for UUism. When you search for “Unitarian” in Japanese, almost all of the top hits come back for a specific subject and location. Can you guess what they are?

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Universalist Quote of the Day #108

“Ours was the first Christian body in America to set forth the new philosophy of Christianity, which conceives of the soul as set in this world, not to be tested by a fixed law, but to find its destiny in a true freedom; which begins and ends in the idea of the sovereignty of love; which sees in the moral creation not a scheme merely to give every may his deserts, but a system whose aim is to help every man to realize his true destiny. Such is the theology for which this church has stood, in which it has been faithfully taught from the beginning. And I would that as we study it and realize its essential harmony with itself, with the unfolded teachings of science, and with the trend and spirit of the Bible, we might raise a fervent prayer of gratitude to God for the light which shone in the hearts of the fathers and gave them power to see and to say the things which are giving such peace and satisfaction to the human soul.”

–Rev. John Coleman Adams, The Story of Universalism in Hartford, 1906.

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Universalist Quote of the Day #107

“Though there be that are called Gods whether in heaven or in earth as there be gods many and lords many, yet to us there is but one God the Father of whom are all things and we in him. That God is love, good unto all, and his tender mercies are all over his works, that he is a just God and a Savior who will have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, that he worketh all things after the council of his own will and that all his attributes harmonize. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ. . . that God hath given all things into his hand even power over all flesh that he should give eternal life to as many as the Father hath given him. That all that the Father giveth him shall so come to him as not to be cast out. . . that the ransomed universe shall at last unite in the song of Moses and the Lamb in ascribing blessing and honor and glory and power unto God and the Lamb forever and ever. This is the doctrine I believe and glory in, it is worthy of its divine author and by promulgating this you say that I am preaching the devils doctrine and preventing the salvation of souls. Now I beseech you never to think so again or acknowledge while holding the doctrine of Election that man can prevent the salvation of souls for it is wholly inconsistent with a belief that doctrine according to my view of the subject. Now if this doctrine of the Election of a part of mankind be the truth of God how can you call him impartial or just or good or merciful in giving being to those that are lost. Do think of these things solemnly seriously and constantly for if the doctrine of eternal misery be true I beseech you as a father never to give your consent that either of your dear children should marry, nay farther than this you should separate those what are married and do all in your power to prevent so great an evil from falling upon any of your posterity.”

–Rebecca Porter, Letter to the clerk of the Baptised Church of Christ in Hartford, 1827.

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