Thursday, July 17, 2014

Reminder: It's Not the Fault of the people of Detroit

The decision of the American auto industry to ignore the demand for fuel-efficient cars was not made on the street corners of Detroit, nor in the offices of the UAW.

The decision of the American auto industry to answer consumer interest in smaller Japanese cars by concentrating more on trucks and SUV's was not made in the poor neighborhoods of Detroit, or by the city government of Detroit.

The decision of the US Automakers to disinvest in Detroit and move auto production to non-union states like Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia was not made by a popular referendum south of 8 Mile Road.

The decision to respond to the economic calamity that was the result of the disinvestment in Detroit with loans to the city, rather than through a state and regional reinvestment and development assistance -- well, that decision was not made by city employees of Detroit.

The people who made the critical decisions that have led to Detroit's plight do not live in Detroit, and they are, for the most part, still wealthy and powerful. And they are still making the decisions that will affect all of our futures. And they are still making them with the same short-sighted, self-interested, myopic and money-grubbing indifference to the lives of ordinary people as they have shown Detroit. (Just for one example, the masters of the universe who control finance capital continue to pour money into the fossil fuel industry while alternative energy investment is judged more risky. Yet, the greatest risk to human civilization is climate change!)

This is the second time that the blame for Detroit's bankruptcy has become focused on a group of Detroit residents. A couple of months ago, it was the terrible greed of Detroit retired city workers and their outrageous pensions, which average $19K per year. Now, it's the people who are behind in their water bills.

The people who live in Detroit, particularly the poor people there, are the surviving victims of an unnecessary, man-made economic disaster: Hurricane Disinvestment. They are not to blame for Detroit's woes, and they should not be treated as deadbeats and parasites.

Like the poor residents of New Orleans, they had the nerve to survive calamities not of their making, for which they are now blamed.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Mississippi Freedom Summer Project -- Story of Hope and Victory

This map is the bus tour sponsored by the Living Legacy Project and The UU College of Social Justice that have been on. 

The big history of the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project.

The story of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Freedom Project can get lost in terror and tragedy. The brave decision of four Mississippi Civil Rights organizations to bring a thousand college age volunteers from around the country to push their voter registration drive forward was audacious. The state's white power structure mobilized as though the state was being invaded, including the deployment of the Klan, as an armed terrorist organization to intimidate the civil rights worker. No sooner had the volunteer training session in Oxford, Ohio come to an end, were three Civil Rights workers killed: James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. The Summer Project started with death.

The violence continued all summer long. The Klan was active all summer, shooting into houses and offices, following people, driving by houses. The Klan was closely linked to the White Citizens Council, the respectable segregationist organization of bankers and lawyers and merchants and the Mississippi State sovereinity Commission, an official state agency which operated a surveillance network reporting to Movement activity throughout the state.

The volunteers were actually not very successful registering people to vote. The legal obstacles were great and the intimidation powerful.   But they were successful in the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

The MFDP held caucuses and a convention which elected a slate of delegates to send to the Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City, in August.  They presented themselves to the Convention as the loyal Democrats of Mississippi chosen in an open and democratic process. They demanded to be seated instead of the regular Democrats, who had been chosen only by white people and refused to sign a pledge to support Johnson in the fall election.

Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer gave graphic and compelling testimony about what she had endured trying to register to vote in Mississippi to the Convention Credentials Committee. Lyndon Johnson pre-empted her testimony with a quickly called press conference of his own, but the networks repeated her testimony throughout prime time. I remember vividly her testimony; Johnson's press conference, not so much.

But it shows that the Mississippi Movement had captured the full attention of Lyndon Johnson, the President of the United States. Johnson was afraid that if the MFDP was seated, the delegates of Mississippi and other Southern states would walk out of the convention and into the Goldwater campaign.

Johnson sent Hubert Humphrey and Walter Reuther to negotiate with the MFDP. They put the full force of argument on the leaders of the MFDP, which rejected the offer of two non-voting, at-large delegates, who would be seated along side the regular Democrats. The negotiations were tough. Mrs. Hamer asked Adam Clayton Powell how many bales of cotton he had ever picked. She told Hubert Humphrey that she prayed for him as he violated what he knew was right to earn a job as Vice-President. In the end, the voting rights activists went home.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic lost in Atlantic City. The regular Democrats were seated, but the South voted for Barry Goldwater anyway. Johnson won the election handily. In the spring of 1965, John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr. started the Selma campaign for voting rights in Alabama. Unitarian Universalists know that story well. Lyndon Johnson threw his support behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the history of the United States was changed.

I believe that the battle for voting rights was won, however, in Atlantic City the previous summer. It was won by the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project. It was won when the choice was made clear, would the South be represented by a multi-racial democratic coalition, or by a whites-only elite? It was won by incredible courage and clarity of Fannie Lou Hamer, who was repeatedly beaten for trying to register to vote and who frightened the President of United States with her eloquent truth-telling.

We often think of grass-roots community organizing as slow, patient work done in obscurity. On the other hand, we often think of high politics of political parties and national conventions as another  far-away  world. But in 1964, some very brave and skillful people brought those two worlds together in one space, and a great victory was the result.

Monday, July 14, 2014

I'm Back with One big Thought on Ministry in the 21st Century

I finally made it home after three weeks on the road: General Assembly, a week in Boston, driving to Memphis and then a week in Mississippi for the Freedom Summer History Tour, and then home here to Ann Arbor.

I will be posting my thoughts on General Assembly and the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project History Tour over the next few days. I met some amazing people and have some good pictures.

But the one big thought about "Ministry in the 21st Century" which has been riding along with me all across the miles is this: it's about the 21st Century!

The big problem is NOT adapting to new technology. We are all going to get to the new technology sooner or later, along with everybody else. Some adapt faster and some lag behind. That was true with the telephone too.

The big problem is also NOT about responding to generational changes. Time will take care of that situation. The geezerfication of the Boomers is well under way and by 2064, we will be singing in the heavenly choir, while a generation now unborn side-eyes wheezy Millennials on their Occupy History HoverBus Tours.

The big problem for "Ministry in the 21st Century" will be anticipating the social, political, economic and cultural conditions of the times to come, and discerning what liberal religious leaders are called to be and do in those conditions. 

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

You Must Sing!

Make a little room in your day for this testimony .. and this exhortation .. from an immense talent.

Monday, June 30, 2014

A Practical Case Study in Standing on the Side of Love

Conventional liberal approaches to homelessness have been practiced for decades -- since the beginning of the present housing crisis in the 80's when the emerging rightwing hegemony over policy dismantled public housing programs and cut community based mental health programs as too costly. 

Homeless people and families were provided social services, and as they proved that they were ready, they became eligible for subsidized housing programs.  The policy was driven by mercy, but also by the fear of a moral hazard. The fear is that if help is given to the undeserving poor; the help will reward socially undesirable behavior. The fear is that social policies will create dangerous temptations by being too generous. 

Housing FIrst breaks with the fear of the moral hazard. In cities that are implementing "Housing First," chronically homeless people, as they are, are given keys to apartments. They don't have to get sober; they didn't have to get mental health treatment and be stable. Mercy, so to speak, is unconditional. Surprise, formerly homeless people will deal with their underlying issues when they have a home, an address, and a more secure living situation. Doesn't that make sense? It's easier to solve real problems when you have a roof over head than when you sleeping in the alley.  It even costs less, which is not the point, but interesting. 

The opposite of love is indifference. The old policies were based on the threat of indifference. If you, a homeless person, don't shape up, the rest of us will be indifferent to your situation. You can sleep in the alley for all we care. All social policies that reflect some sort of "tough love" threaten indifference, the conscious withholding of resources or support, as a punishment for not doing the "right thing" or exercising your "personal responsibility." 

Love is engaged caring. It's tactic is not withholding, but caring. It is meeting people where they are and helping them with the resources to address their most pressing problems. 

The present rightwing ideology that still shapes public policy in this country (despite being a minority political position) is based on withholding assistance in order to force  people to "exercise their personal responsibility."  We've cut unemployment benefits, "reformed Welfare", reduced food stamps, restricted Medicaid, let the banks profit on the education of the young. We now face a retirement crisis that is the direct result of such "tough love" policies. Social Security benefits have been kept low in order to make sure the workers save enough for their retirement.  They think that we must avoid the moral hazard of letting people think that they will have secure retirement no matter what. 

When religious liberals say that we are standing on the side of love, I believe that we are calling for the institutionalization of love as the basis of social policies.  Social policies should work on the basis of engaged caring that meets people where they are. Our social programs should not threaten to withhold resources to force bahavioral  changes.

If that seems too abstract, or pollyannish, to explain to your friends and family, point to the example of Housing First. 

Over the Edge -- Brave Souls

Having deep seated fears about heights, fires and drowning, the recent UUA GA in Providence was a bit of a challenge for me.  I did not rappell off the side of a building, because of an earlier traumatic experience with a Ferris wheel. I stayed well back during the Waterfire witness. The fear that I might fall in and be swept down the swift flowing river bouncing off one giant red hot flaming chalice of death after another deterred me. 

But a brave faith takes many forms, so I tried to hear of other stories of courageous witness from participants at GA.  Some unverified stories:

I heard of a minister who changed the Christmas Eve order of service.

Another recently settled minister told the largest donor that no, they did not get to veto decisions of the Board.

Someone told a UU Republican that just because no one agreed with them, it didn't mean they were oppressed. 

A whole congregation somewhere stepped up to the plate and took up clapping during hymns. The steeple stood. 

A congregation had a contested election for an important office. Somebody lost and somebody won, and but both agreed to stand by the congregational covenant. 

100% of a church's made a monthly pledge that matched or exceeded their cable bill, thus risking a lifetime of perpetual poverty.

Myself, I called some people I didn't know on the telephone. I wasn't even wearing my robe. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Optimism, Hope, Hopeless Hope and Radical Hope

When I observed that "the world is unfair, but it gets better", some people were uncomfortable with that.  On the VUU (episode 64), we got into discussion about various types of hope.

There is a distinction made between hope and optimism.  Optimism is a belief that things will work out for the best.  Optimism has been proven wrong so often that it doesn't carry much weight. I am optimistic that it won't rain on Saturday. I am optimistic that the Democrats will hold the Senate in the fall. I could be wrong about both, and if I am, I will be mildly chagrined. No crisis of faith.

Now when it comes to Hope, a much more substantial emotion. Hope is the conviction that things will improve. It is a belief about the nature of the world and progress. St. Paul says that hope is one the three things that last forever, along with faith and love.

People point out that it is hard to hope, what with the disastrous turns history makes, as well as seeming permanence of some people's conditions. It is hard to hope for progress on a planet which is being poisoned and cooked. Some question Parker's statement that "the arc of the Universe bends toward Justice." They see in it a presumption of privilege, or an excuse for sitting back and letting the inevitable do the work of justice for us.

The Michigan Labor Legacy Monument --
the incomplete arc
But saying that objective conditions do not merit hope is like saying the every person is not worthy of love. These are not statements of scientific fact, where a single counter-example disproves the theory. (It would only take one time for the sun rises in the West to disprove our understanding of the solar system.)

The fact that history is so often tragic leads some to what they call "existential hope", or what I call "hopeless hope." Hope is a moral obligation, and even a psychological compulsion, in the face of almost certain failure. Hope is a mental state, disconnected from material reality.  It is like "love" in the face of violent rejection, or "faith" in the face of what seems God abandoning you. It is mustering the will to act "as if" there is hope in a hopeless situation.  For me, I think it is a kind of vanity, a heroic pose, which is off-putting. In a world in which almost everybody struggles on their daily lives for something better, it seems odd for sophisticated philosophers to say that there is no real basis for hope. What does that say to the family in Central America who sends their children North? Or the single mother minimum wage worker who is works 3 part time jobs? They hope for real things.

For me, our hopes must be rooted in some understanding of a real process, beyond our will. While I do not think our hope for justice is inherent in the movements of the stars above and the tectonic plates below, I think that our hopes have a material basis in human beings and in the process of human cultural evolution.

It is said that "Oppression breeds resistance".

A wall mural in Belfast 
Why is that true? It is true, not in the direct "water freezes at 32F" way, but across history and cultures, it does seem true that oppression breeds resistance. Maybe, you can say that human beings will overthrow the social system that they live under when their survival seems at stake. That process is real, and doesn't work on my command, as much as I would like to call up rebellion with my words and deeds. I have hope because human beings are made in such a way that oppression does breed resistance.

The other material process upon which I base my hope is in the directionality of human cultural evolution. I have been influenced by Robert Wright, "NonZero" on this. As much as human beings are prone to resolving differences with violence, they also tend to end violence with the creation of more complex systems which rely on less violent means to resolve differences. Somehow, violence ends with an "win-win" cultural elaboration. The secular state resolves the European religious wars. More complicated, less violent.

Oppression breeds Resistance; Rebellions force accommodations and increased social complexity. There is a human element here. The more clarity about oppression, the greater the resistance. The more resistance, the greater the rebellion. The greater the rebellion, the larger accommodation and the more progress. Humanity advances through the push and pull of contending forces.

I call this "radical hope." It is hope that is born of a dialectical view of history. I believe both that "the arc of the universe bends toward justice" with Parker, in that processes beyond our simple human wills are at work. I also believe with Obama, that we have grab that arc and pull it hard toward justice.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Love Reaches Out

Core Statements of Liberal Public Theology

Four key learnings that guide liberal public theology
Unitarian Universalist public theology is now expressed in our aspiration that we should "stand on the side of love." That hope expresses the first principle we affirm: that we promote the worth and dignity of each person. That principle restates our historic Universalism. For if God intends the salvation of all, then doesn't it behoove us to treat each person, whom God holds redeemable, as worthy and possessed of dignity?  After all, if God holds them worthy, who are we to be choosier?

We rarely fail to love because we hate. Yes, there are people who do terrible things, arouse us to great anger and are difficult to love. We test ourselves against our Universalism by trying to imagine those we could not love. But Adolph Hitler and Ted Bundy are not the real test of our Universalism. Our failure is that we regard so many with indifference. We just don't know their story.

Respect for a person's dignity, loving them, is not abstract and general. It is specific and particular. Once we know a person's story, we cannot still remain indifferent or hate them. Why? Because we then see them as a person, like ourselves, trying to do their best for themselves and those they love, in their circumstances, with their history, with their material conditions, with their family history, with their brain chemistry, with their culture. It is humbling.

Our first principle, the worth and dignity of every individual, is not just linked to our seventh principle, the interdependence of all life. It is its dialectical twin. To love somebody is to hear their whole story, to see them whole against the wider sky. And then we see them, the individual, as one node in a network of interdependence, part of the systems and structure of our social life and history together. Everything causes everything else.

Finally, our public theology follows from our embrace of Darwin and the principle of evolution. Just as God did not create all the species of plants and animals at one time, fixing them forever, God did not create human society and its hierarchies of power. Just as important, human society was not created by a 'social contract' voluntarily created by free and equal human beings during some unknowable pre-history.

Most human social institutions were created by the imposition of power by the strong over the weak. But they are changing and evolving. There was no golden age in the past. There was no original or natural intention for human society. There is no going back, and the future has not happened yet.

Humanity could move toward greater equality, greater justice, greater love. It could also end in disaster, war and misery. But liberal public theology is based on hope, and a faith in human agency to make a better future.