About the Author
Alex Winnett

President Obama’s Staff Asks for Our Help

Today, President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel (seen at right), and the Director of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Rev. Josh DuBois, stopped by the Washington Office to see how the UUA is supporting justice and progress in the United States and the World.

We showed the Emmanuel and DuBois our Actions of the Month on Environmental Justice and Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

They expressed interest in our work on BGLT equality. And they wanted to learn more about the Social Justice and Advocacy Trainings we offer. They were particularly pleased with the results of the Sexuality Education Advocacy Training (SEAT) we hosted last month.

The workshops we are offering at General Assembly on environmental justice, immigration, and direct democracy were particularly exciting for them.

Overall, DuBois and Emanuel were extremely pleased with the work of the UUA and said they would report back to the President about our office immediately. Both look forward to working with us more in the future.

Oh, and Happy April Fools Day!

What do Michelle Obama and I Have In Common?

Last summer, the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association voted in our annual meeting to devote four years of study and action to the theme of Ethical Eating.

Congregations, communities and individual UUs all over the United States are asking questions about food. Where does it come from? Who grows it? Who gets access and how? How do we eat? How do we cook? How do we share the bounty? What happens when people don’t have access to food? Vegan or compassionate omnivore? Is it better to eat locally or organically?

Which brings me back to the question posed in the title of this post: What do Michelle Obama and I have in common? Not a whole lot. But we do have yards at our homes. And in those yards, we will grow vegetables.

On Tuesday, Mrs. Obama announced that the groundskeepers of the White House compound will tear up a small portion of the lawn to grow an organic vegetable garden. Students from nearby Bancroft Elementary School will help break ground today.

This is quite the success for home gardeners everywhere who have been lobbying the President and First Lady for a kitchen garden at the White House. Famed Chef Alice Waters, whose restaurant Chez Panisse specializes in locally grown and sustainable food, was thrilled. Chef Waters was quoted by the AP saying,

It just tells you that this country cares about people’s good health and about the care of the land. To have this sort of ‘victory’ garden, this message goes out that everyone can grow a garden and have free food.

This is not the first time the White House has grown its own. During WWII, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt grew a victory garden on the South Lawn. And before that, when the country was more agrarian, the White House grew much of its own food, including raising sheep that grazed on the White House Lawn.

Whether you call it urban farming, kitchen gardening, or victory gardening, growing your own fruits and vegetables is an incredibly rewarding experience. According to the New York Times, the White House Vegetable Garden will only cost $200 for compost and seeds. But the results will be worth a lot more than that. Fresh produce to be used in the White House kitchen, or my own, is a time and money saver. And when the bounty of summer comes, I like to give away my surplus vegetables to my neighbors.

In my neighborhood, the nearest food sources are bodegas, conveniences marts and corner stores. Here, you can occasionally find a hard, mealy, tomato or a soft, eye-ridden potato. Most everything else is frozen, bagged or in cans–high in salt, preservatives and sugar. The nearest grocery stores are a twenty minute walk. And the nearest farmer’s market is two neighborhoods over, a forty-five walk. This is difficult for folks who may be single parents, elderly, or on low incomes.

But by growing and sharing vegetables right out of my yard, I bring much needed fruits and vegetables to my street.

I applaud the Obamas for starting their own vegetable garden at the White House. I also think it is great Mrs. Obama insists the First Daughters will be the ones weeding. This will help the girls understand where their meals come from and the work involved in growing the food. But most of all, I thank the family for the wonderful example they are setting.

Sixth Year in Iraq This Week

This week, we mark the sixth year our forces have acted as an occupying force in Iraq. Since the initial invasion we have seen thousands of US, Coalition and Iraqi lives lost. We have seen billions of dollars wasted and lots of lost opportunities.

While we mourn the loss of lives and resources, we also celebrate our successes. President Obama may have inherited this war, but he is acting quickly to end it in a safe and responsible manner. He has promised a redeployment home of 12,000 military personnel this summer followed by a near complete withdrawal of troops by the end of 2010. However, we are disappointed that a total of 50,000 troops will remain without a clear and concrete mission or time line.

We encourage your congregation to participate in the Iraq Memorial To Life and work to finish the job in Iraq in a timely manner.

Please visit our Iraq War pages at uua.org/socialjustice to find out how you can recognize this milestone as well as support our veterans and reconciliation with the citizens of Iraq.

Happy (Belated) Birthday Joseph Priestley!

Last Friday was the 176th birthday of Rev. Joseph Priestley. Rev. Priestley has been credited (sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly) as the man who discovered the implications of oxygen, invented soda water, founded modern day Unitarianism, tore apart the friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, was a seditious alien, and as Benjamin Franklin said, “an honest heretic.”

I just read an excellent new book about Rev. Priestly called, The Invention of Air, by Steven Johnson.

Below is a very good interview of Johnson on the Colbert Report last week.

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We have a lot to thank Joseph Priestly for. Not only did he set the basis for the faith we share, his isolation of oxygen from plants sparked the first major environmentalist movement of the modern western world.

His invention of soda water, allows for one my favorite vices–namely carbonated beverages.

His involvement in the American and French Revolutions through his political writings helped shape early American culture.

But in my book, what I really appreciate about Priestley is his willingness to share ideas. Johnson writes that Priestly was an unapologetic over-sharer. He had no problems with sharing his ideas, bouncing new thoughts off of friends, and publishing his extremely detailed notes of handmade instruments. In the enlightenment era he lived in, property rights were just starting to incorporate creative and intellectual products. Many of Priestley’s intellectual enemies profited directly from his own lack of intellectual discretion.

But in many ways, Priestley’s proclivity to sharing ideas and his vast and prolific publications led to the open source, creative commons, and DIY movements of today.

Just as Priestley would spend hours in London’s coffeeshops distributing and collecting ideas from his peers, we have seen people do the same today. Believing that intellectual freedom breeds innovation and advancement; makers, crafters, programmers, etc. have blown open the old paradigm of intellectual property rights through the Internet.

People like Lawrence Lesig have innovated the way we think about political lobbying through his Open Congress Initiative. Linus Torvalds started a movement to make computer operating systems built by users for uses through Linux. Movements like Maker Faire and unconferences allow many people to come around a theme but work unrestricted by schedules to be creative and open to new possibilities.

So happy birthday Rev. Priestley! We celebrate your life and mind! I lift my fizzy water to you while tinkering over my crafts and gadgets I share with my friends and peers.

Violence Returns to Northern Ireland

When I speak with ministers or seminarians, they all agree: their clinical pastoral education turned their theology lessons from theory to reality. There is nothing like comforting the dying, praying with a prisoner, or helping a student discern her calling to experience the beauty and grace of the divine.

For me, as someone who studied peace theory in college, my theory did not become reality until I went to Northern Ireland. Peace, there, was always a tenuous ideal despite the fact that it had been a little less than a decade since Catholic and Protestant leaders signed the 1998 Peace Accord, creating a power sharing agreement between Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists.

Violence in Northern Ireland definitely had been reduced, but had not disappeared. While violence based on religious backgrounds had grown out of societal favor, we had seen increased hate crimes against recent immigrants and surrounding perceived gender and sexuality. The drug trade and organized crime also lead to an increase of street violence.

For the people of Northern Ireland, politics, religion and culture is a big stew of memory and hurt. While the dividing systems of The Troubles are under deconstruction, it is nearly impossible to fully bring together such a divided and segregated society. Even if every sectarian mural was painted over, every “security fence” taken down, and every bench scrubbed clean of graffiti, it would be a herculean task to reconcile a city such as London/Derry, which has literally polarized its different factions of population on opposite sides of a river.

During my time in Northern Ireland, people were happy for the peace accord. Democracy was blooming as power sharing negotiations had begun again and the local government returned to order after a five year hiatus. People were hopeful again.

But tension lingered. Sectarian violence always seemed to be a possibility. Anger and frustration churned just below the surface, like a pot of water just before it starts to boil. The question was: would sectarianism ever come to the surface and erupt again?

Last Sunday, two British soldiers were gunned down by the Republican paramilitary, RIRA (Real Irish Republican Army), stationed in Northern Ireland’s County Antrim before they left for Afghanistan. And again, the next day, a different Republican paramilitary, CIRA (Continuity Irish Republican Army) took credit for the first murder of a police officer in over ten years.

Immediately the leadership of Sinn Fein, the majority Catholic Republican party in Northern Ireland, denounced the violence. Martin McGuinness, former leader of the Provisional IRA and Deputy Leader of the party called the dissident Republicans “traitors” to the peace process. He added that the CIRA and RIRA “don’t deserve to be supported by anyone.”

Strong words from a man convicted in 1987 of setting bombs that killed eleven.

As the Northern Ireland Assembly met at Stormont (the Capitol building of Northern Ireland) on Monday, the Sinn Fein Leadership stood and offered a moment of silence for the fallen soldiers and police officer. Republican Leadership offering a moment of silence for fallen British soldiers was a sight unthinkable as little as five years ago.

I was deeply moved by seeing the Nationalist and Republican responses to this violence. It is a strong testament to the peace process and the power of reconciliation. Yesterday, a friend in Northern Ireland posted pictures from the rally in Belfast. All over the province, over 200,000 people (about 1/6th of the population of Northern Ireland) came out for a silent protest against the violence.

As Minister McGuinness put it, in many ways this violence has “strengthened the peace process.”

Many people wondered what the radical Loyalist factions would say about the killings. Thus far, they have been positive.

Jackie McDonald, head of the largest Loyalist paramilitary–Ulster Defense Association (UDA)–has echoed Minister McGuinness’ statements saying, “The IRA blew the two communities apart during the Troubles but the Real IRA and Continuity IRA have actually united the people like never before.”

While the major political leaders and much of the population have decried the violence, it is not over yet. A threat of a “major” and “considerable” bomb being smuggled onto the island by CIRA and/or RIRA has caused a cross-border task force of the Northern Ireland Police Service and the Republic of Ireland’s Garda Siochana (Guardians of the Peace). So far, two people have been arrested in connection to that threat but no device has been found.

International Criminal Court Calls for Arrest of Sudan’s Al-Bashir

On Wednesday, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, along with many high level cabinet officials, for crimes against humanity. The warrant calls for any government to apprehend and extradite Al-Bashir to The Hague for trial. This is the first time a sitting President has been called before the Court.

As a result, Al-Bashir’s government has expelled over 10 foreign aid groups from the area including Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and CARE International. The Sudanese President believes these organizations were responsible for giving the ICC enough evidence to indict him. Without these organizations the nearly 3 million displaced refugees in the area will have reduced access to food, clean water or medical facilities. Doctors Without Borders believes an untended to outbreak of cholera, meningitis or malaria would cause deaths in the thousands.We, at the UUA, are greatly saddened and disturbed to hear about the expulsion of the aid workers. Their presence in the camps is necessary for the health and safety of the residents.

During his presidential campaign, President Obama made very strong statements concerning the future of Darfur in Sudan. He said the United States must have “unstinting resolve” to solve the crisis there. So far, we have seen no movement on his part to act even after the call from the ICC. The UUA, a member of the Save Darfur Coalition, is asking you to send a postcard to President Obama to help end the violence in Darfur. You can send your postcard electronically and request hard copies for your congregation by visiting the Darfur Action Center.

Rev. William G. Sinkford, President of the UUA, encourages every UU to sign their postcard to President Obama. He believes this is an issue for all Americans, especially UUs to learn more about. President Sinkford says, “We felt called to speak out, to shine the light of truth into a region overshadowed by the worst form of government oppression… Neither innocence nor ignorance can excuse us from acting, but despite the outcries from the United Nations and much of the world community, the killing continues. We must do more.” See his complete remarks at http://uua.org/socialjustice/issues/internationalpeace/darfursudan/37400.shtml.

Batman and Counter-Terrorism

The third in a series of blog posts this week inspired by movies highlighted in Sunday’s Oscars Awards ceremony. Today, Alex Winnett, Program Associate for Peacemaking, discusses The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight won two awards–one for Best Supporting Actor and another for Best Sound Editing.

I was thrilled to hear that the late Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at this year’s Academy Awards. Not only was this an excellent tribute to an amazing actor we lost far too early in his career, it is also a recognition of his best performance ever.

Ledger won for his portrayal of Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker, in the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight. Ledger joined the ranks of such acting greats as Cesar Romero, Mark Hamill, and Jack Nicholson who took on the role of The Joker. But whereas Romero, Hamill and Nicholson played The Joker with a tongue-in-cheek campy insanity; Ledger’s portrayal was dark, sinister and homicidal.

Ledger’s Joker was the worst of every boogey man in our culture, a terrorist who understood the true power of terror: the ability to make an enemy an ally.

Last month, The National Review Online named The Dark Knight as the 12th Best Conservative Film of the last 25 years. One pundit made connections between Batman and Former President George W. Bush saying:

In his fight against the terrorist Joker, Batman has to devise new means of surveillance, push the limits of the law, and accept the hatred of the press and public.

But what the NRO forgets is that Batman fell into to the trap of the Joker’s genius. The Joker was able to pull Batman down to his level and turn him into a fellow terrorist. Watching the movie again, I can’t but notice the most heroic moments are not when Batman breaks the law, puts civilians in danger, or invalidates civil liberties; instead, we champion the moment when Batman’s techy assistant, Lucius Fox, destroys a surveillance computer that would make the NSA drool. We mourn the loss of the white knight District Attorney, Harvey Dent, as he goes insane. And cheer when two ferries full of civilians and convicts respectively–when faced with a high stakes example of the prisoner’s dilemma— each decides to sacrifice themselves instead of the other–thus saving every one.

While the political right would like every one to make the connection that George W. Bush and his band of neo-cons are heroic Batman-esque figures, not every one sees it that way. When faced with destroying the principles your are attempting to save, it seems like Gen. Petraeus’ principles of counterinsurgency hold true: the more force you use, the less effective it can be; tactical success guarantees nothing; and if you lose moral legitimacy, you lose the war.

Furthermore, we want to make every terrorist The Joker. We want to believe that every single person out there wanting to destroy the American system–from the Middle East to the Midwest–are all single minded homicidal maniacs who want nothing more than to kill, pilliage and destroy. But as Eboo Patel and Max Abrahms point out, the average terrorist is not Osama Bin Laden or Ayman al-Zahariri; but, rather a lost young adult who seeks refuge in a community of supporters. It is striking to see that all the 9/11 hijackers were no more than eight years older than myself. Some were even younger than I am now. Timothy McVeigh was only 23 when he blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in 1995.

While Commissioner Gordon announces, in a puritanical fashion, that Batman is the hero we deserve (in a world of fear and pain), but he is not the hero we want (one who will inspire us and give us hope), we are forced to ask if we should receive the hero we want or the one we deserve. If it is a choice between one who falls easily to the trappings of terrorism, or one who rises above it, I believe we should get the hero we want rather the one we deserve.

Changes in Darfur

This past Tuesday, the Sudanese government announced they made a peace agreement with one of the rebel groups in Darfur. In the agreement, members of the rebel organization Justice and Equity Movement (JEM) would be released from prison in return for a complete ceasefire from the JEM.

This is big news as the JEM was one of the many rebel organizations to be left out of a ceasefire agreement made by the Sudanese government last November.

This news comes quickly after an announcement made the International Criminal Court saying the Court had collected enough evidence to possibly try the Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir for crimes against humanity. President Al-Bashir has been implicated in a bloody and brutal six year-long anti-insurgency campaign against rebel groups such as JEM. This campaign has included public murders, rapes, and the displacement of entire villages. Many in the wider global community have said there is no way to characterize this conflict other than genocide. While no arrest warrant for Mr. Bashir has yet been issued, this has added considerable pressure on the Sudanese government to make a timely and sustainable peace agreement with the rebel groups.

Over the past six years, a conservative estimate of 300,000 people have been killed due to the conflict and another 2.7 million people have been displaced, primarily to Chad.

We encourage you to write a letter to President Obama asking him to uphold the commitment he made to Darfur during his presidential campaign. For more information please visit the UUA’s Darfur Action Center.

Statement of Conscience to Be Sent to General Assembly

The UUA Bylaws requires a 25% quorum of congregations to send a Statement of Conscience–a comment on where the UU community stands on a social justice issue–to General Assembly–the annual business meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association. On Monday, February 2nd, the congregational poll asking whether or not the Statement on Peacemaking should be voted upon at GA closed. A record total of 81% of congregations participated in this poll! The resolution to send the Statement on Peacemaking to General Assembly overwhelmingly passed with over 40% of all congregations approving of the measure compared to the less than 1% who voted it down.

This is a huge success. In the past, less than 10% of congregations have participated in the congregational poll for a Statement of Conscience. Congregations decided how they would vote in the poll in a myriad of ways. Many congregations held congregational meetings to discuss and vote on the measure. Other congregations empowered their social justice teams or ministers to speak on behalf of the congregation.

Feedback was also collected by congregations and delivered to the Commission on Social Witness.
The Commission on Social Witness (the committee that is in charge of the UUA’s social justice statements) will take the results and feedback and edit the draft Statement of Conscience in early March. That draft will be sent to congregations in preparation for the vote at General Assembly.

Statements of Conscience require a 2/3 majority vote to be passed at General Assembly. With almost 40% of congregations supporting the discussion of peacemaking at GA of 2009, this makes the passage of a Statement of Conscience on Peacemaking a real possibility.

If your congregation is not participating in the peacemaking study action issue, it is not too late to begin. You can get more information at uua.org/peacemaking or by emailing peacemaking @ uua.org

Rebirthing King, Rebirthing America

On this past Monday, January 19th, over a thousand people entered All Souls Church, Unitarian, for the Rebirthing King, Rebirthing America celebration hosted by Olive Branch Interfaith Peace Partnership. This event brought together a diverse group of theologians and activists from major American spiritual traditions.

Together, we explored the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2009. Using his April 4, 1967 speech: Beyond Vietnam, we looked at poverty, oppression and militarism today.

The evening began with a vigil for peace on the front steps of the church. Prayers were offered by Japanese Buddhist monks, Catholics fasting to close Guantanamo, and marriage equality activists.

During the service inside All Souls Church, Unitarian, speakers included:

  • Rev. William G. Sinkford– President of the UUA
  • Rev. Robert Hardies– Senior Minister of All Souls Church, Unitarian
  • Mark Johnson– Director of Fellowship of Reconciliation
  • Samina Faheem Sundas– Founder of Muslim American Voices
  • Rabbi Arthur Wascow– Founder of the Shalom Center
  • Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock– Minister from Disciples of Christ and founder of Axis of Friendship
  • and many others.

The service included music from the Interfaith Children’s Choir and singing from Dr. Ysaye Barnwell–a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock.

The evening was an amazing collection of inspiring speakers– concluding with messages from Rev. Jim Forbes, minister emeritus from New York City’s Riverside Baptist Church (where Dr. King gave the Beyond Vietnam address) , and Dr. Vincent Harding who co-penned the speech with Dr. King.

We learned together that Dr. King’s legacy is still important in an age of President Obama. Poverty, Oppression and Militarism are still prevalent in today’s society. Racism, homophobia, sexism, and the lack of equal opportunities inherent in these systems reinforce a lack of economic stability and reinforce these people as second class citizens. Not only does a military attempt to retain American supremacy and hegemony siphon important funds away from people who need assistance, these second class communities become a surplus of disenfranchised citizens who find their only solution is military service. (This is not to say that all military service people are or see themselves as disenfranchised. Nor is this to say that they are not incredibly brave.)

In order to end poverty, oppression and militarism, we find ourselves obligated to work against all three simultaneously.

For more information on the event and the Olive Branch Interfaith Peace Partnership, please visit olivebranchinterfaith.org

For more photos, visit the Advocacy & Witness facebook page.