Those *^*%&$ Artifacts

The past is the framework upon which our present is built. So, by appropriating the past of another for ourselves, we are often stealing or destroying their future.

For the last several years my alma mater, Andover Newton, has been wrestling with the issue of repatriation of the significant collection Native American Artifacts it has accumulated over the last two hundred (or so) years. The process has been heavily criticized by many because it has been extremely slow, with little apparent progress to outside observers.
 
And yet, as my fellow alumnus, friend (and awesome minister) Rev. Virginia Child pointed out recently: the reality is that the effort to restore even a single artifact to its rightful present day caretakers is a far more challenging and convoluted process than it would seem. While we usually know where an artifact came from and who originally gave it to the school, identifying who should be the caretaker can be quite a challenge, as this article about a controversy over the repatriation of the remains of an ancient Wampanoag leader demonstrates.
 
So, while it is frustratingly slow, Andover Newton’s determination to be careful and sensitive in the repatriation of each of these artifacts is to its credit. It would be much easier to simply hand them to the first group that shows up with something resembling a valid claim. But, such an approach would only continue and aggravate the long ago injustices that created the present situation.
 
This same type of controversy is an often intractable aspect of far larger conflicts we see in so many places: Israel/Palestine; the Progressive/Conservative battles in the US and elsewhere; the tensions between China and many of its neighbors; North Korea; Black Lives Matter; the controversies in many of our Southern states right now over flying the Confederate flag and the placement of statues and memorials venerating Confederate heroes and events; and the representations of Native Americans in sports team names and logos.  In each case, tensions focus on questions of “Who owns our past?” And, “Who has control over the narrative of what our past means?”

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Fearless Girl / Charging Bull

gettyimages-660179780-1024x566A bit of a kerfluffle has erupted in the last few days over the “Fearless Girl” sculpture on Wall Street in New York City, created by Kristen Visbal.

As most of you know, on the morning of International Women’s Day, “Fearless Girl” was set up facing (and, in fact confronting) the famous “Charging Bull” sculpture on Wall Street.  “Fearless Girl” is intended to make it clear that the time of Wall Street and major firms being a “mens’-only” club is over.  Women have long deserved the right (as well as convincingly earned the right) to have an equal role in the leadership of this nation’s business community and its many firms and organizations.

Now, the artist who created and installed “Charging Bull,” Arturo Di Modica, is taking offense at the way “Fearless Girl” changes how the public looks at his own work.  He wants “Fearless Girl” removed, and is suing the City to try and force this to happen.

But really, is this a reasonable argument?

“Charging Bull” was a piece of guerrilla art itself, secretly installed one night after the Stock Market crash of the 1987.  The artist saw it as a symbol of prosperity and strength.

But, it has also become a symbol in the years since of the dominance of capitalism and forcefulness of American business.

And that’s precisely the problem…

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Running for Office

In January I announced to my congregation that I would be resigning as the pastor of ARK Community Church in Dalton, MA; effective June of this year.  It is a lovely congregation, full of energy and determination to be a voice for God’s call to love all of our neighbors without condition and without judgment.  Over the past 3-1/2 years since we first met, they have become good friends, and I will definitely miss them.  I am confident they will do great and wonderful things in the months and years to come, and I wish them well.

 

I have set my feet on this new path because I had found that – regardless of whether I win in Monday’s election or not – my deepening involvement in local government, community building and social justice efforts has brought me to a point where it is no longer possible to be as engaged as I feel I must be in either field of endeavor, if I were to try to do both at the same time.

While I will no longer have a regular “Day Job” as a Minister, I’m sure I’ll occasionally preach, or officiate at a wedding or funeral.  …The call to ministry is still here, just manifesting in a slightly different way most of the time.

This does not mean that the theological and political or social justice commentary that I present here in this blog will end – far from it.  If anything, such written perambulations will probably increase!

My passion is, and always has been, to help bridge gaps between people: to bring them closer together, to learn to trust and respect each other, and so to make it more possible for them – both individually and as a community – to be all that they are called to be; and to live lives filled with peace, respect and happiness.

That call upon my life continues, merely in a different form.

Political Reality

I’ve said this before, and it needs to be said again and again:

Some aspects of the GOP’s agenda, particularly with regards to economic policy and governance, have merit: reducing government bloat and overregulation are good goals; as is strengthening our manufacturing base and increasing our economic competitiveness.
 
I may disagree with some aspects of these goals, especially certain proposed implementations, but the basic ideas are sound. Making progress on these issues would be welcomed by many moderate Democrats and non-aligned voters, especially if implemented with some effort at building a common consensus with those outside the party. And many within the GOP, such as Senator McCain and even Dick Cheney have said exactly this.
 
However, the GOP’s blind spot is their assumption that they have been given a mandate to promote their social agenda and a pass on ignoring the influence of dark money and corruption in politics.  If they continue pushing on rolling back social reform and ignore the corruption issues (as they are actively doing), they’ll have a really tough time in the next election cycle – despite their extensive attempts at voter suppression and gerrymandering.
 
But Democrats be warned: American voters are determined to have a government that is focused on improving the situation of the middle class and the poor, and they see “dark money” and influence-buying as key obstacles to making that happen. I think it likely we’ll continue to see increasingly large, wild and ultimately destructive swings every few years from one party being given control to the other until both parties recognize this and do something about it.  Case in point: the current regime.

And let’s be perfectly clear on this: those of us who are devoted to the cause of social justice can never ignore the fact that people vote first with their wallets.  If we don’t provide the majority of people within this country with realistic hope for a stable and prosperous future, they will be adamant in their refusal to support any expansion of social justice that could be construed as taking away what little stability and hope they already have.  It doesn’t matter to them how right or just a particular cause may be: what matters is whether they have a roof over their own heads and food on the table for their own children.

That’s reality: deal with it.

– Pastor Allen


Copyright (c) 2017, Allen Vander Meulen III.
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Abolish the Johnson Amendment?

In a recent editorial (“IRS Should not Enforce Silence from the Pulpit“), the Boston Globe gave a nuanced and thoughtful (if brief) critique of the current state of the law. And, in fact, I agree with their position.

As I (and the Globe) see it, the problem with the so-called “Johnson Amendment” which prohibits churches and other tax-exempt groups from specifically endorsing candidates is not that the law exists, but in how it is enforced by the IRS.  In fact, it’s a bit of a morass, with varying standards applied in various cases with varying degrees of zeal on the part of the IRS’s representatives.

As a minister, I do not specifically endorse (or condemn) candidates from the pulpit. (Although, I doubt anyone is in the dark about my political leanings!)

On the other hand, I have known of ministers who have condemned (or endorsed) specific political candidates from the pulpit in various ways, and I feel – even if it were allowed by the law –  this is a seriously flawed approach, from many different points of view.  I have even known ministers who have allowed campaigning politicians to give speeches from their pulpit, in clear violation of the Johnson Amendment.

Aside from the very clear “First Amendment” issues (regarding both Separation of Church and State and Freedom of Speech), I see such endorsements as a Pastoral failure: it is insensitive and dismissive, if not blind to, the feelings and experience of many who are in our congregations.  Ministers who make such a stand often find themselves in hot water with their congregations for precisely that reason, and rightly so.

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Sermon: “With”

“…whether Women or Blacks or Jews or Japanese or Gays or Muslims or Hispanics or Native Americans are human is not the issue. They are, obviously. The real question is: are we?”

dsc_0168One point I was hoping to make with the “Hope” video I was going to show at the beginning of today’s service was that the “Women’s Marches” around the country on the day after the inauguration were not “Protests.”

Now, a “Protest” is where you stand against something – some event or social ill or person. And, certainly this was an impetus to the creation and organization of those demonstrations; but to “Protest” is not what I saw when I was there: it was not why millions of us came together.

We came to be with each other! We knew it was important to show through our physical presence, that we will support those who are being marginalized. We came because we care. We came because we will no longer stand by while our neighbors are being silenced and oppressed. We gathered together out of love, not out of hate.

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Major Crow

The heart of the problem is that many believe that being in a leadership position means they no longer need advice, particularly unsolicited advice: They must have all the answers, and see accepting advice from others as a sign of weakness. They think they’ll lose face for accepting help from others; or that “naysayers” are seeking to undermine them and their cause. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

“Where there is no guidance, a nation falls,
but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
– Proverbs 11:14 (NRSV)

A dozen (or so) years ago, I was a Technical Lead for an IT services contractor in the DC area.  After wrapping up one project, I had been assigned to lead a project for a new client of another division within my company.  A few months later, I was pulled back into my old group because a project that had been waiting approval for a long time had finally gotten the green light: writing a new and very complex logistics-support application for a branch of the military.

Several members of my team had spent years supporting (and fixing) the predecessor to the proposed new system.  They had developed a very deep and thorough knowledge of the way the client used the system, the system’s remaining flaws, and the needs it was failing to address at all.  We had known for a long time that it would cost far more to finish fixing the existing system’s critical problems and gaps than to rewrite the whole thing from scratch.  The client had finally agreed: a design and project plan had been developed, and the proposal had been approved.  I was brought back to lead the technical side of that effort.

Just a couple of weeks later, we had our initial meeting with the primary stakeholders of the new system in an office building not far from the Pentagon.  I arrived along with my boss.  She and I were escorted into a conference room.  Several of the folks associated with the use of the system were already there, and we all chatted for a few minutes as the rest of the team trickled in.

Suddenly, an aide came in and announced an Officer: after that introduction, he strode in and sat down.  Wasting no time, his message was pointed and brief: he had talked to the commander about an hour earlier and convinced him that our project should be under his command, since he was already tasked with leading the development and deployment of a similar system.  (Although similar, not identical – its mission actually had very little overlap with that of our project.)

He explained that our project was needless duplication, and that it would detract from what he was trying to accomplish.  Besides, he’d had a conversation with the vendor of the workgroup product his own “portal” was going to be built-with, and the vendor had assured him it would only take 8 months to duplicate the functionality our project would provide.  And so, he’d promised his commander that he would have the new system up and running in eight months time.

Therefore, he was shutting down our project, effective immediately.

Continue reading “Major Crow”

Marching in the Light of God

img_8889A synopsis of the “A Message for All Ages” I presented to our congregation’s children (and adults) on January 22, 2017.


I attended the “Women’s March for America” in Boston yesterday.  It was not easy to get to because Boston’s Public Transportation system was overwhelmed by how many people were trying to go, but it was well worth the hassle it took to get there.

I thought it would be good to show you a slideshow of some of the things I saw, as well as talk about what that March means for us and our neighbors.

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Why Should We Resist?

Yes, we need to work with DT and his regime, and will. We would do so in a collaborative, supportive way if he were a reasonable man…. But, he is not that kind of man.

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From “An Emerging, and Very Pointed, Democratic Resistance”, The New Yorker Magazine, Jan 18, 2017 (link below)

During my first job as a computer programmer (way back in the late 1970’s) the owner of the small factory where I worked was quite a large and “take charge” sort of man, and had quite the temper.  When you crossed or disappointed him in any way, he’d lean forward, turn red in the face and pound his fist on his desk: yelling at you and insulting you.

Everyone in the office would cower behind their desks when this happened: hoping they would not become the next target of his wrath.  No one dared tell him “No.” (Except me, although that was largely because I was too naive to realize I should be intimidated.  I also didn’t have a mortgage or car payment to worry about!)

What I learned is that once he yelled and screamed for a bit, he’d calm down, and then would listen to what I had to say.  He came to respect me because I stood up to him, and told me so.  Even though we never became friends, I did respect him; and we accomplished a great deal during my time there.

That ability to stand firm in the face of such anger has served me well in the years since.  (Although it has also gotten me fired once or twice, until I learned that doing so works best if you listen carefully past the emotion, to hear what the other is trying to say.)

Now, the politics of consensus and community-building – which are my own default and preferred approach – can lead one to conclude that we should play nice with our new President from day one, as  Joan Vennochi advocates in her opinion piece “Democrats, don’t take your ball and go home” in today’s Boston Globe.

Yes, we need to work with DT and his regime.  If he were a reasonable man (and nothing he’s said in public leads to that conclusion), I’d agree with Ms. Vennochi’s points.  But, he is not that kind of man: his personality is very similar to that long ago boss of mine, and many others I’ve encountered in the years since.

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The UCC’s Letter to Talladega College

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Dr. Billy C. Hawkins, President of Talladega College

Yesterday while I was leading my Church’s Worship Service, a member of our congregation asked me (during our “announcements time”) what I thought of the UCC’s recent letter to Talladega College, a historically Black College in Alabama that has been rebuilding itself after nearly failing a few years ago.  This letter challenges the school’s decision to allow their marching band appear in the Inauguration Parade in Washington DC on January 20th.  It seemed fitting to publish my thoughts here; expanding on the response I gave to her question.

Now, clearly the school’s decision is very controversial, given the incoming administration’s abysmal track record (to date) when it comes to social justice issues and policies.  However, Talladega College’s President, Dr. Billy C. Hawkins, defended the school’s decision saying: “We respect and appreciate how our students and alumni feel about our participation in this parade, … As many of those who chose to participate in the parade have said, we feel the inauguration of a new president is not a political event but a civil ceremony celebrating the transfer of power.”

In response to the college’s announcement, the leadership of the United Church of Christ, my own denomination, and which has been a supporter of Talladega College, sent a letter to the school questioning this decision and asking that they reconsider.  Several alumni of the school have expressed similar concerns.

This is an old, old argument: a new phase in the long battle between those in the Black Community who advocate a more accommodating approach in confronting racism and injustice in this country; and those who favor a more confrontive approach.  Both approaches are valid, and are part of a toolkit that encompasses a wide range of possible responses to racism and injustice that can (and should) be deployed.  (Though which is most appropriate depends upon the particular situation.)

I cannot speak to the specifics of this situation: I was not party to the decision process at Talladega, and have not seen the text of the UCC’s letter to the school.  However, I am deeply concerned by the UCC’s actions here.  What I do know is that Dr. Hawkins is no lightweight, and no stranger to tough challenges; and that we cannot dismiss his school’s decision, or reasoning, lightly.

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Remembering Carrie Fisher

carrie-new-hi-resIt was the Spring of 2002; and Lucasfilm was hosting “Star Wars Celebration II” at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis.  My [then] wife, daughter and I travelled there in our camper: joining 75,000 or so other people to celebrate all things Star Wars, and especially the upcoming release of Star Wars “Attack of the Clones.”

My 13 year old daughter was a huge fan, and had been preparing for this trip ever since we first heard about it, developing her “Jedi Jaina” character: purple and black hair; lavender costume, purple light saber.  She’d written a script and put together a sound track as the background for a solo performance at the talent show that would be part of the convention’s many events, and hosted by Anthony Daniels. (I was the voice of Yoda for her sound track: the worst Yoda voice-over ever!)  Even though she did not win the talent show contest, her pluckiness and costume were a huge hit.  And, she got to give Mr. Daniels a big hug in front of about 5,000 people.  I was so proud of her: her dreams had come true.

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A Reality Check about Trump and Russia

putin-finalWhile I lean towards accepting what is being said by many in the government (and echoed throughout the mainstream media) about Russia deliberately interfering in our elections to benefit Trump, I am also aware that human beings, especially bureaucrats, tend to behave a bit like Lemmings.
 
So, we must ask ourselves: are these many Federal bureaus and agencies all reaching this conclusion of Russia’s deliberate interference out of independent, unbiased investigations and analysis; or are they looking at which way the wind is blowing and finding facts to fit the conclusions they feel others want to see?
 
Such “proof” got us into the the Second  Iraq War; and such “proof” has been the cause of much injustice and pain throughout history. So, let’s be careful about jumping to conclusions prematurely.
 
On the other hand, more than a few Republicans, and especially Trump’s camp, are taking this as an attack against his legitimacy as President. They’re right, it is; but it is a legitimate concern, not a manufactured one.  And frankly, if Hillary had been a stronger candidate, the validity of Trump’s election would never have become a concern.  (To be clear, I was a Hillary supporter; even though I recognize her weaknesses as a candidate.  However, this discussion is about Trump and Putin, not the validity or outcome of her candidacy.)
 
The way for Trump and his supporters to solve the problem is NOT to try and discredit the concerns and accusations, or to try sweep the whole mess under the rug.  It was hard enough for Obama due to similar (although baseless) accusations, and he swept into office with a huge electoral mandate on his side.  It will be far harder for Trump, who will be a President with a shaky mandate from day one.  So, it is in Trump’s own best interest to make sure the truth is revealed, and quickly – even if the accusations turn out to be true. Otherwise, he will find himself to be a President that few see as legitimate and whom no one pays much attention to, outside of an ever-shrinking circle of devoted fans.
 
Our faith, and our Democracy, are both intended to help us to find Truth in spite of ourselves.  So, let’s make sure we take the time to allow the Truth to be made known.