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I wore a lot of buttons in high school, but none of them excited so much comment as the pink triangle.  At the time it was rare for anyone who wasn’t gay, lesbian or bisexual to wear the symbol, and national progress toward justice was slow.  The Supreme Court had just ruled sodomy laws constitutional, and the right to marry was a distant dream.  The AIDS epidemic in the United States was at its deadliest moment, and the enduring image of the time, created by AIDS activists, was a big black poster with a pink triangle and the words “SILENCE = DEATH.”

pinktriangle
The pink triangle itself came from Nazi concentration camps, in which gay men were identified with a pink triangle on their shirts.  Tens of thousands were imprisoned, many were killed, and some were not released even at the war’s end.  (Lesbians were not identified by pink triangles, but many were arrested for “antisocial behavior” and made to wear black triangles in the camps.)  In the 1970s, the triangle began to appear as a symbol of gay pride and a warning of the dangers of oppression.

During the 1990s, the pink triangle began to fade from use.  The rainbow “welcoming flag,” celebrating diversity, appealed to straight allies as well as bisexual, lesbian and transgender people.  It was a less harsh, more positive symbol, a way of saying, “all kinds of people are welcome and valued equally.”  Today the pink triangle seems all but consigned to history.

With the news of draconian anti-gay measures in Russia, Nigeria and Uganda, a new ban on gay sex instituted by the Supreme Court of India, and nouveau Jim Crow laws proposed in Arizona and elsewhere, I wonder if it might be time to bring back the pink triangle.  While the world has made great progress in the struggle for equality, the current backlash is proving powerful and dangerous.  In the United States, measures permitting discrimination on the basis of “religious freedom” will inevitably prove unable to withstand constitutional scrutiny by even the current Supreme Court.  More pernicious are the American religious extremists who have given up on the United States and turned their energies toward countries that offer no such protections, or who have weak governments in need of distraction or scapegoats.  Ironically, both Russia and Uganda have couched oppressive new laws as reactions to colonialism by Western gay culture when the truth is exactly the reverse.

I love the welcoming flag, and fly it proudly – but maybe we need to hold onto the pink triangle as well.  Maybe we need a reminder of the cost of hatred, in real human lives and livelihoods.  Maybe we need to remember that silence really does equal death, and the worst thing we can do is remain silent in the face of oppression.

Our voices matter, and we can save lives.  Sometimes what matters most is a word of encouragement and welcome to a teen just coming out.  Sometimes it’s our support of equal marriage rights, and equal protection in housing and employment.  At other times we need to raise our voices for those around the world whose sexual orientation places them in far more immediate jeopardy.  We can do this not only by campaigning against anti-gay laws, and supporting sanctions towards nations (and states) that pass them, but also by calling to account those who would export hatred.

I pray for a world in which a symbol like the pink triangle is can be a historical curiosity, when people are simply regarded as people, whoever they are and whoever they love.  I believe in my heart that such a world is both possible and likely – but it will take years of work, and history must never be forgotten.

Meanwhile, it’s time to find that old button.

Pete Seeger

When I was growing up, I wanted to be Pete Seeger.  I loved the songs, the harmonies he drew out of people, the banjo he played, the way he brought people together and got them singing.   My mother made me tapes of some of his concert albums, and I listened to them over and over again.  I learned every song.  And when I sang, I used to look up into the air and shout out the high notes, just like he did.  It was a real disappointment to me when my voice changed and I discovered I wasn’t a high tenor.

To be honest, I still want to grow up to be like Pete.  Through the years I have learned as much from him – through music, writings, the example of his life, and the few conversations we shared – as from anyone else I can think of.  Yes, he was a musical genius – I found that out the first time I sat next to him at a People’s Music Network Gathering and heard his impromptu harmonies and counterpoint – but he was also a deeply thoughtful, ethical man who made it his mission to bring people together.  In his courageous testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he said,

I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life.  I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.

Pete attached every bit as much importance to a performance for a classroom full of children as he did to one at Carnegie Hall.  He got people singing with each other and listening to each other, and he taught generations of us to do the same.

I won’t pretend that I knew him well.  If the people who have mentored me in music are the children of Pete, I am a grandchild, influenced as much by the music he inspired in others as the songs he performed himself.  In recent years I had the privilege of working with him on some projects, and through that work we shared a few conversations.  Our interactions were almost all over the phone, and I always felt privileged if he called, or if I happened to reach him on a day when he felt like talking.

And oh, what conversations they were.  I used to take notes, which is not something I would normally do – but there was so much wisdom in everything he said that I knew I didn’t want to let it slip away.  He talked about community and the connections people of different cultures were able to make with each other, more and more across the world, and how much hope it gave him for the future.  With typical modesty he never once mentioned that he was a pioneer in making those kinds of connections; I don’t think it even occurred to him.  He said that if the human race survives another hundred years, it will have been the arts that saved us – music, visual art, theater, dance, and especially laughter.  “If we can get the whole world laughing,” he told me, “we can move the world along.”

Pete was a Unitarian Universalist, and I’m sure he is one of the reasons I went into the UU ministry. It wasn’t anything he ever said to me – instead it was the lessons I learned listening to those records and singing his songs.  I learned to care about ordinary people, to value freedom and justice, to work for what is right no matter how daunting it seems, to bring people together, to listen and value the voices of others.  I learned to respect all people, no matter who they are and where they come from.  I learned the value in a story.

Last week, my six year old son came back from school telling me they had talked about Pete Seeger and sung his songs.  He knew some of the songs already, of course, and had often listened to the CD of Pete’s Children’s Concert at Town Hall, or some of the music that Pete helped to influence.  Whatever direction his own life and music take as he grows up, he’ll be part of another generation touched by the musical and spiritual gifts Pete gave to us.  And what a gift that is.

In an interview for BeliefNet a few years ago, Pete was asked if he thought there was an afterlife.  He said,

Well, you might consider this. When Toshi and I had our first child who died when it was only six months old, I was in the army, my father wrote me and said, “I don’t think I could cheer you up in the usual way. But remember this, that something good that has happened can never be made to unhappen.” That’s a nice way of putting it, don’t you think? Something that has happened can never be made to unhappen.

Pete’s life was unquestionably good, and it can never be made to unhappen.  Knowing that brings comfort and tears.  They are good, healing tears, and when they are done, Pete will still be with us – in the ways we sing, the work we do for justice, the care we take of this old brown Earth, and the community we live with one another.

Rest in peace, Pete.  Thank you.

 

There’s a new movement receiving a great deal of attention lately.  The Sunday Assemblies have been growing and spreading in England in the United States, promising a congregational experience without God and touting the admirable motto, “Live better, help often, wonder more.”

I hadn’t paid them much attention, although what I’d heard had made me wonder whether they knew about Unitarian Universalism or Religious Humanism – and whether we might be a fit for these people. Then I heard an interview with the two founders, who made it very clear that they welcome people who believe in God as well as people who don’t, and that some of their leaders are in fact Christians. “Aha,” I thought, “they really are like Unitarian Universalists.”

And then the whole thing took a huge turn.

“We really don’t mention God, or Atheism, or anything like that. We make it as welcoming as possible for all people. We don’t talk about faith, because that ends up alienating people, but we also don’t talk about not believing in it,” said Sanderson Jones, the group’s co-founder.   Asked what they sing, the other co-founder, Pippa Evans, answered, “The songs that as you wake up in the morning, you’d be happily singing along to….”  And the examples they gave were utterly content free – the lyrics didn’t seem to matter.

That’s when it hit me that there is a significant difference between Unitarian Universalism and the Sunday Assemblies.  The movement they presented is based on a model of never challenging anyone. The guiding principal seems to be that no one who comes should ever be made to feel uncomfortable – and to me that just isn’t enough. Authentic community is sometimes uncomfortable, and people need to be able to deal with hard questions of meaning. We don’t have to believe in God – I don’t, at least not by conventional definitions – but we should be able to be challenged, from time to time, in our assumptions.

That seems to be the fundamental difference between the Sunday Assemblies and Unitarian Universalism. Unitarian Universalists embrace diversity, talk about the many things we believe, sometimes challenging each others’ assumptions just by doing that, because we recognize that being with people who see things differently than we do helps us grow and deepen as human beings. In the Sunday Assemblies – at least based on the interview – diversity of viewpoints is something that might exist but isn’t talked about, assumptions go unchallenged, and everything is kept very, very safe.

Ironically, this is what Unitarian Universalists are often falsely accused of being.

I hope I’m wrong about this, because I would celebrate the emergence of a powerful, culturally relevant new Humanist movement. They certainly are doing good work in the world, and they are as yet very young.  But I need a community that will help me make meaning through the tough times of life, that will challenge me to think as well as feel, and that will help me grow as a person. That’s why I’m a Unitarian Universalist.

The Life of Gratitude

What would it mean to live the life of gratitude?  What would it be like to walk out of our homes each day grateful for every gift in our lives?

Waking up, we would give thanks for our houses, the shelter above our heads each night; warmth to keep us through cold November evenings.  We might be thankful for the love in our homes, or our favorite things – our music, our books, the art that gives us pleasure.  We might be grateful for the people in our lives, both near and far away, and the reminders we keep with us of their presence.  We might be grateful for the animals who give to us companionship and joy.  We might give thanks for food, for clean water, and for hot coffee.

Stepping out into the world, we would open ourselves to a bounty of blessings – the stunning array of nature’s glory in turning leaves, the brisk air that awakens us, the smell of Autumn.  We would be grateful for neighbors, who have shown us kindness, for their children who sing with the spirit of life, for the many ways we have to get places and do things.

We would be grateful for work to do when we are employed, for support and assistance when we are not, for good health and good medicine, for the care of a loving community.  We would give thanks for our feelings – laughter that keeps spirits vibrant, tears that remind us what is most important in our hearts.  We would give thanks for the play of ideas in minds that are nature’s most profound miracle.

It is hard to live this way all the time.  Disappointments draw us away from the blessings, hard suffering gives no reason for gratitude, and the news of the day is often hard to hear.  But it is not difficult to live this way some of the time, and it is worth making the effort.  When we do, we awake not only to the extraordinary, but to the simple, ordinary blessings we take for granted.  Many of these blessings are people, who deserve to be thanked.  Others are qualities of life itself.  When we choose to look at the world through grateful eyes, what we see may astonish and inspire us.

What would it mean to live the life of gratitude?

trans day of remambrance

A Prayer for Transgender Day of Remembrance

On this day set apart for memory,
we remember and honor the struggles and the sacrifices
of those who have come before us,
leading us to equality, dignity, and justice.

We remember and honor those who have suffered discrimination or violence,
those whose lives have been lost,
those whose bodies or spirits have been wounded,
those who were made to feel less than whole,
less than beautiful,
less than they are.

We remember and honor
the gifts of wisdom and courage
brought forth by ancestors and companions in spirit.

We remember and honor those who walk proudly,
who love themselves and others,
who teach by their being,
and who reach to help others along the way.

We remember and honor friends, neighbors
and those we do not yet know,
revering the wholeness and dignity
within every human soul.

This day
and every day,
may all of us,
transgender and cisgender alike,
dedicate ourselves unflinchingly
to respect for every human being,
to justice,
to equality,
and to the transforming power of love.

Amen,
and blessed be.

- Rev. Dan Schatz
November 20, 2013
Transgender Day of Remembrance

A Sweet Lasting Peace

Note – the video doesn’t play directly from the blog, but does from YouTube.  Click the link and watch it; you’ll be glad you did.

Veteran’s Day can be a challenging observation for those of us in the peace movement. As a committed pacifist, I deplore all war. The very existence of armed conflict is, in my view, the most colossal and self-defeating waste of resources ever devised by humanity. At the same time, I recognize the sacrifices of women and men who have gone to war – some voluntarily and some not so. I’ve seen minds damaged and families destroyed by the aftermath of battle. I’ve seen good people walking around with physical and emotional injuries that will never show. And I cannot help but honor these women and men, not because of the injuries, but because of the sacrifices they made out of love of country. I may not agree with the need for those sacrifices, but I surely honor the people who made them.

Utah Phillips once said that the way wars can end is when soldiers start talking about what it was really like. He has said that his time in Panmunjom immediately after the treaty was “absolute life amid the ruins.”

On today’s Morning Edition, National Public Radio’s political commentator Cokie Roberts talked about the effect of fewer veterans serving in Congress. “You see it in debates about taking the United States into military actions where you don’t hear the voices of those very experienced veterans.” I wondered how eager politicians would be to enter wars if more of them understood it better.

I’ve always appreciated A. L. Lloyd’s Seamen’s Hymn. In its brief simplicity it captures both the honor of sacrifice and the cruelty of war:

Come all you bold seamen
Wherever you’re bound
And always let Nelson’s
Proud memory go round.

And pray that the wars
And the tumult shall cease
For the greatest of gifts
Is a sweet lasting peace.

May the Lord put an end
To these cruel old wars
And bring peace and contentment
To all our brave tars!

There are several videos of performances of “The Seamen’s Hymn,” but to my ear this recording from a pub sing captures it best. This is how the song should be sung – by the people, often and loudly.

On this Veteran’s Day, may we honor sacrifices made in war, recognize its cruelty, and join together in prayer for the greatest of gifts – a sweet lasting peace.

Last night folk music lost one of our dearest friends. On October 24, Faith Petric died at the age of 98. She had been performing up through the last few years. (You can see videos of her performing Geritol Gypsy and You Ain’t Been Doing Nothing If You Ain’t Been Called a Red.) Faith was a mainstay of the San Francisco folk community and a mentor to hundreds, if not thousands, of musicians.  Here’s a link to a lovely remembrance by Stephen Taylor.

At 98, it would be hard to call Faith’s death unexpected, but it’s a huge loss. I met Faith when I was fifteen, producing a benefit concert for the homeless at my high school in conjunction with the People’s Music Network conference that year in Washington DC. Being fifteen, and from the east, I’d never heard of her, but she was invited onstage by the other musicians. She had the most inviting personality of any performer I’d ever seen. Without any artifice, she led us all in Jerry and Bev Praver’s song, “This Old Man Should Go Back Home.” It became a staple of my repertoire for the rest of the Reagan administration.

Years later, Faith donated her beautiful recording of If I Could Be the Rain for a CD I produced, Singing Through the Hard Times – a Tribute to Utah Phillips. She was as gracious and warm as ever.

I was in touch with Faith only a few times since then, but I’ve always felt a warmth, admiration, and kinship with her. The world is a little sadder tonight for her loss.

Goodbye, Faith. It was a pleasure to know you.

Note:  This post was updated with a couple of corrected details on October 31.

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