Why “take your punishment” falls flat

Disclosures! Principled disobedience! Angry words! Someone in hiding! Legal threats! Not coming forward!

Starr King School for the Ministry? No, Edward Snowden, of course.

This article, “Is Snowden Obliged to Accept Punishment?” (Just Security) by Michael J. Glennon, Professor of International Law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University — you know, a college founded by Universalists — takes apart the presumption that Snowdon has a duty to hand himself over for punishment. In short, the presumption of a punishment-accepting civil disobedient is not a uniform or customary behavior; that it was often unavoidable (rather than a choice); and there are good reasons — unjust state power — to reject it. Really worth a read.

But it gives me an excuse to flag a few things in the current SKSM scandal:

  • It shows how small we are as a religious fellowship, and dependent upon personalities and friendships to manage our organizational relationships.
  • We still haven’t heard the version of a single student, in public. Do they feel as free to speak as the leadership?
  • Nobody so far has challenged the holding-documents=theft claim, with the follow-on threat of criminal penalty. I’d love to see how far that would go. Especially in the Bay Area.
  • Nobody has said a word, apart from the unspecified fear of lost donations, about money: the UUA’s grant, for one, or the cost of litigation, if it goes that far.
  • That the affair, in the national climate, will become a Rorschach test for our political opinions, perhaps losing the meat of the crisis. If the general public ever learns it…
  • Unitarian Universalist will have to re-assess how culturally exceptional we (think we) are.
  • We’ve not heard much from the laity in the pews: what opinions come out of their experiences? Will anyone care if they do?

Heaven, help us!

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I think we do need to reassess our exceptionalism. Part of that, though, is acknowledging that the laity in our churches for the most part have no idea Starr King (or my alma mater, Meadville/Lombard) exists. I suspect that is why we haven’t heard from the pews. If you were to ask my church’s (almost entirely college educated) members where I went to school, some would think Andover Newton (which is wrong) and others would say “some school in Chicago” because they remember me commuting to CTS for my DMin.

    I think there will be some impact among the people we have already heard from and those who are obviously impacted (I will and am praying for them). The biggest general damage will be to clergy morale, I suspect. Otherwise academic disputes are what they are. Tempest teapot. Members have real life to worry about and their own dramas at work to talk about.

  2. Bravo for pointing out how we are “dependent upon personalities and friendships to manage our organizational relationships.” Its long been a rather unjust way to organize ourselves. Nepotism is difficult to fight when the least among us have no room to maneuver. Add that to our increasing tendency to find only one “true and right” answer to complex issues, and you have an self satisfied and self replicating orthodoxy.

  3. No, it wouldn’t. (I’ve also linked to that from the “not SKSM” post.) Two reasons:

    1. The communication — indeed, like the board communications — are shaped for a purpose, which may or may not include public understanding. I want something less mediated.

    2. What of the other dozens of students ? Surely one of them has a story.

  4. I saw something posted by Julie Brock today on FB but unfortunately it’s not linkable since it is part of a comment string on someone else’s page. As to others the only person I know from Star King was keeping their head down for what seemed like fear of retribution to me.

  5. http://www.prairiemary.blogspot.com I’ll post this Sat. nite at 10PM


    How could anyone find fault with Rev. McNatt as a choice for president of Starr King School for the Ministry? This is a dignified, competent, almost OVER-qualified woman. There are only two specifically Unitarian Universalist seminaries (Those are Starr-King and Meadville/Lombard — though Harvard and Andover-Newton are traditionally welcoming to UU students) M/L (my alma mater) has a male white president not nearly so qualified nor so well-connected to the larger world. (HE never had an article published in Glamour magazine!) Either there is something that’s not being shared or . . . what?

    A candidate for ministry educated at Starr-King has created a mini-scandal by getting hold of something confidential that the search committee used in making their choice. He’s made it the basis of accusations that McNatt was UNqualified. “Strapped Student,” by breaking confidentiality, may think he’s an international cyberspy on the side of the righteous transgressive, but in fact he has just destroyed his ministerial prospects. Not because of the content of his accusations but because confidentiality is a strong component of a minister’s role in society.
    And yet the counter-value of transparency is strong and pervasive. I sent out a little preview version of this post to a list of UU leaders, personal friends, almost all low-status hard-workers but with credentials. None have responded. I’m not surprised. Along with transparency we want safety — in fact, that’s one of the reasons we want transparency. We feel our leaders are incompetent. They don’t understand what’s really going on — big-shots, they are, who sit at privileged tables and don’t have our interests at heart. They talk jargon and procedure and never risk their own necks.
    This is so pervasive that small town students even at the high school level have to be persuaded that their teachers know what they’re doing — by teenager standards — or the students will try to control by disrupting and ignoring anyone their parents criticize. After all, our example is government at every level. Polarized, wearing religious masks, intent on having their own way.
    The Unitarian and Universalist movement are uneasy partners for many demographic reasons. Two other major schisms divide the UUA: the black/white politics that nearly tore the denomination in half and the much more covert male/female divide, now confused by “third gender” issues. Anyone hoping to be a major figure (like a seminary president in a high-profile religious community like Berkeley) will have to find some way to negotiate some of that very rough water. They are not likely to be distracted by a wannabe minister who mounts a marginal attack by going after procedure.
    Not that I’m unsympathetic. The UUA is a wannabe political force in this country (so is the CUC, the Canadian version, up there) and has thrown in its lot with the Democrat liberals to the point of eroding their own core. In fact, simple pluralism and good intentions aren’t much of a core in a time when so many people — many of them children — are being murdered by neglect, incarceration without trial, trafficking and famine. We are destroying the very planet that sustains us. The cutting edge of religion now is the survival of human beings — not who gets to sit at the table in seminaries.

    The easy and well-worn conflict between black and white (which is being blurred by the rise of the “brown” people) means that much deeper issues are ignored. We are no longer species-specific. In fact, much of our fate is controlled by microbes which we destroy haphazardly every day. Where’s the deeper “unity” and “universal” of Being itself?

    The role of a specialized religious professional arose ten thousand years ago when cultivation and storage of grain meant walled cities and enough wealth to build temples, enough nervousness about loss to justify bribes to fate. That is, agriculture is the foundation of culture — and yet UU churches are an urban phenomenon. At the same time, constituents tend to be the kind of scientifically hip and culturally adventurous people who understand our home as a small planet on one arm of a whirling galaxy. They reach out for another understanding at the same time that status quo controllers are trying to re-empower the ideas that arose out of the shift away from hunter-gathering to grain and then to sugar and fat. (!!!)

    Why would ANY religious professional want the thankless job of trying to lead a minor seminary in a marginal and — let’s be frank — probably antiquated movement? Well, living in California might be a lot nicer than New York city. On the other hand, the water is rising on both coasts.

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