Sunday, December 18, 2011

Elz Curtiss writes in a comment on a post in Beauty Tips for Ministers (part of an extended multi-sided discourse on Almy's introduction of a clerical shirt in the hello yellow of the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign.)

It is my contention that today’s Unitarian Universalst Association has adopted demonstrations as a sacramental faith-revival tool, such as The Lord’s Supper used to be. Getting arrested is our new adult Baptismal ritual. There is no question that many UU Facebook threads brook no compromise on many political issues. This raises questions about our openness on political and cultural issues. Do we really want to be as politically narrow as the Religious Right tries to be? Many of those congregations, by the way, are reconsidering whether that is the best way to serve their God and members, as people leave when their politics soften or change.
I believe that she means for us to be shocked into recognition by her assertion that some religious liberals see the demonstration as equivalent to adult baptism.

I have been shocked into sufficient recognition to wonder if there is a problem here.  Maybe one's first demonstration is an adult baptism, and if so, is that theologically unsound?

It is said of the early Christian communities that "as they prayed, so they came to believe".  They prayed to Jesus as God before they had a theology of the Trinity.  They believed that Jesus died for our sins before they had a theory of the Atonement.

Of modern religious liberals it might be said that "as we say whereas, so do we resolve."  As we proclaim, so do we believe.  As we demonstrate, so will we believe.

In other words, we analyze social conditions first; we issue statements and make resolutions first; we take action first.  And then, we reflect theologically on the position that we have found ourselves to have taken.  Often times, there is a deeper theological significance to what we have said than we ever knew.

We are still  unpacking of the "inherent worth and dignity of every person" and the "interdependent web of existence."  It turns out there are important and unresolved theological issues lurking in each phrase.

The declaration of our intention to become an "anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural' religious movement, likewise, has some deep theological implications.

What does it mean to declare oneself against all forms of oppression?  What is oppression?  There are many instances of oppression, but what is it as a general thing?  I think that by declaring ourselves as against oppression in general, we make it a general thing.

I think that we are coming to the hypothesis that oppression is a general feature of all forms of social organization.  It varies in form and in severity, but human social organization seems to be  rooted in and manifesting all sorts of oppression.

This is a break from pre-existing liberal social theory which seems to assume that oppression is a particular aberration from the norm, a particular historical devolution from a pre-existing time when people were free.

 No, the norm, we are beginning to see, is oppression.  The forms of oppression change; arrangements that seemed normal for centuries are revealed to be oppressive.  It even appears that the oppressed and the oppressors can change places.  Nonetheless, it is becoming more clear that to live as a human being is to live in a social order that is oppressive.  Oppressive means that the burdens of human life (disease, isolation, exhaustion) are distributed unevenly among people as a result of social power.

Questions arise:  is this God's will?  Is this a fundamental aspect of the human character?  Is this unchangeable?  Can we stop it?  There is much to discuss.  All of the wisdom on the world's religious traditions are resources to this discernment.  Our traditions of religious liberalism seem to say that the oppressive social order is not God's will, is not immutable, and is something to oppose.

So, it seems reasonable to me that a religious movement that recognizes social oppression as omnipresent yet unnecessary would invite people into political activation.  One's first political demonstration is a baptism into a different way of looking at the world and a different intention  for living in it.

If one believes that the social order is fundamentally fair, although some people may have some particular grievances, then political activity is not essential to the life of a body of faith.  Diversity should reign.  But if we are moving toward a theological consensus that the social order is unmistakably oppressive and that a faithful life is anti-oppressive then our covenant must move in that direction.


Thursday, December 01, 2011

What to do about the "1%"

Remember, the 1% is political poetry.  There is nothing inherently wrong with making more than some arbitrarily chosen number of dollars.  There will always be a 1%.

The problem with our system is that too much of our national wealth is being invested by the financial markets: Wall Street.  Wall Street only knows how to do one thing: invest capital in order to produce the maximum short term profit.  It very efficiently moves money around to put money in the hands of enterprises which will make the most money right now.

What if Goldman Sachs announced a mutual fund that would invest in the creation of mass transit.  It would promise to spend whatever money it took to build a first class mass transit system.  It would not get any profits for decades if ever.  I don't know about you; I'm not putting my 401k in that fund.

The history of socialism and capitalism has shown that you cannot replace financial markets with government planners and still get efficient capital utilization.

So what do you do the financial markets?

1.  Regulate them, so they are transparent and fair.
2.  You tax the incomes of the people who operate them.  So much money flows through Wall Street that even microscopic fees generate huge personal incomes.
3.  You impose a transaction tax on the market -- every other kind of business is taxed in some way -- the financial markets should be too.
4.  Through taxation, you reduce the amount of money which is invested through the financial markets.  Government spending is another form of investment and can be used to invest in the things that capital markets cannot: projects and enterprises that produce public goods which are not profitable.  Public goods raise the living standards of everyone.  Transportation and communication infrastructure, medical research, even weapons production, while not immediately profitable to the government, create businesses and jobs for profitable companies.

Basically, to improve the standard of living of everyone, we need to (1) reduce military spending, (2) increase taxes on the wealthy (3) invest through the government in the creation of public goods and (4) regulate financial markets so that they are transparent and fair.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The 1% is Political Poetry


The 1% is a piece of political poetry.  It is not a scientific measurement, to be taken literally.  It conveys succinctly and powerfully the extent to which the few rule the many.    

Class is not about income.  Class is not about whether you have an income, a profession, a job or a benefit.  Class is not about culture.  Class is not about wealth.  A "Class" is a historically formed group of people who have a particular relationship to economic order.  

There is a group of people whose relationship to the economic order is that they operate and control the capital markets. They own the large investment banks, the stock brokerages, the trading companies.  Every other person and business and institution in the country is dependent on their economic activity: for credit, for capital investment, to hold their money.  Through the Federal Reserve Board, they make the rules that determine whether that spunky little credit union you moved your money to will prosper or fail.  They cannot be boycotted.

They have enormous power, and because they have enormous power, they are accumulating enormous wealth.  They are not powerful because they are wealthy.  They are wealthy because they have power.  

The  power that they have is such that virtually no investment can take place that they do not see as profitable to them, including the fiscal budget of the government itself.  Lower taxes on the wealthy means more money for them to control.  Money paid in taxes is money whose use is controlled by others.    

In order to have the world we want, the financial and political power of this small class of people has to be sharply reduced.  We need to be able to invest in things that they not see as worthy of investment: education, environment, public works, health for citizens, mass transit and so much more.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A 99 Percent Consciousness

We all have to work on developing a 99 Percent Consciousness, which will be hard.

We see the start of it when Occupiers relate to the Police as people in the 99%.   The police are ordinary people who have done what they needed to do to make their way in this society.  Their best instincts and motivations have been co-opted to serve a system that is not benefitting them.

All but a tiny handful of the people you know are in the 99%.  A 99 Percent consciousness relates to them with an open heart and with sympathy for what they have done and are doing to make their way under a system that is not working for them.

The 99 Percent includes most of the people who disagree with you; most of the people whose taste and cultural style disturb or amuse you; all of the people you instinctively look down on; all of the people you have 'risen above' or 'left behind.'

It approaching others with empathy, curiosity and solidarity.  It is trying to find the way that you can step over your judgments and see them as allies.  We must see them as allies, because we need to be allies, if we are ever to live in the world we want.

We need to think more like Walt Whitman, giving voice to adhesion, the love of all for all.

Yes, in one sense, we need to approach 100% of the people with the same open-hearted delight.  That is the socio-spiritual virtue we ought develop.  But you can't get to 100% without going through 99%.  And the material reality is such that in order to make a better life for everyone in the 99%, we will need to sharply reduce the political power of the 1%.   

Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Friday

"Black Friday" is a challenge to one's spirit, isn't it?

As we emerge from our feast-induced slumber, all enumerations of our blessings flee from our minds, but one: we have might have an unmaxed out credit card somewhere.  Off to the mall!  Start the Christmas shopping now!

It's a challenge to keep up the gratitude, that sense of well-being in the world, that family and friends and love are enough, that we felt on Thanksgiving.

Black Friday is now big news.  Thanksgiving was slow news day, so the TV news would fill the time with stories about the hopes of retailers for the Christmas season.  First, came the Early Bird Sales, which soon escalated to Door Buster sales.  Then the news folks started interviewing shoppers/campers in the parking lots. The sales got bigger. The crowds got bigger.  And as many as enjoyed the frenzy of the shopping, there were as many at home, tut-tutting and fretting about how awful all this was.  Even cheaper fun

But Events always prove my mother right, who often said, "this will go to far, and somebody is going to end up crying."  Which this year, was literally true.  Keeping in the spirit of the season, a woman in a Los Angeles Walmart, pepper-sprayed other shoppers to clear a path to the bargains in the electronics department.   I guess she took seriously the Fox News comment that "pepper spray is a food product, essentially."

I am challenged to keep an open heart to all those whose attitudes toward shopping, consumption and holiday-making are different than my own.  For some, Black Friday is fun; for some, it is practical and economical; for others, it is efficient.  Shopping done, they enjoy the rest of the holidays. Who am I to judge what other people need or want?

We are encouraged in our consumer culture to judge other people by what they buy, by how they shop, and by how they consume.

OK, I try to keep an open heart, but sometimes, it is more of a challenge.

I count gratitude and empathy as some of the essential virtues of the liberal religious path.  Gratitude has been said to be the source of all religious feeling.  If you think about everything that had to fall into place for you to even be here, you have to be humbled and awed.  Call it blessed by God, born under a good sign, or just dumb luck, you have to be grateful.

Empathy is making the effort to see yourself in other people, especially people you don't understand.  It's an imaginative leap.  It's not the same as knowing the truth about someone, but it stops you from distancing yourself from them.   There are limits, of course.  I am having trouble imagining why anybody would use pepper spray in a shopping situation. 

Black Friday is the beginning of the turn toward Christmas.  It is the unofficial start of Advent, the season when we allow ourselves to think that something wonderful might yet happen.  It is the season when we let gratitude and empathy soften our cynical and fatalistic hardness.  It may yet be that not everything will end in tears.  Let us hope so.  Let us just hope.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It seems normal to them

Think about it -- the leaders of our universities, cities and police are baby boomers.  It seems normal to them that the authorities would respond to any politically minded gathering of students with riot police.  There isn't a riot going on -- no destruction of property, no harm to people, no rampaging mobs -- but it seems normal to send riot police.  It seems normal when we watch it on the news.

It seems normal to the police that the proper thing to do is to draw a line in the sand and dare people to cross it.  It then seems normal to the police to arrest people, pepper spray people and beat people who cross that line.  There is no crime actually happening -- but it seems normal to everyone that the police would invite defiance and criminalize it.

It is shocking to watch students being pepper sprayed.  But the underlying situation seemed normal to us -- students were sitting in a circle on their own campus in a place where police said that they could not sit, and so something had to be done.   Why didn't the police just walk away?  Students sit on the lawn all the time.  That would have been a sane response.  But it seems normal to everyone that the authorities would abuse the students.  

It seems normal to the present generation of leaders because that is what happened to them.   

The leaders of institutions of today were all participants or witnesses to the abuse of young people decades ago.  Everybody then had to take a stand on that abuse: some endured it; but were forced in time to say that they deserved it; some participated in it as young people themselves; some witnessed it and were made complicit in it by not having the tools to stop it.

Abused children grow up to be abusing parents because it seems normal.

This is what is happening right now in our country.  All questioning of authority is defiance; all defiance is a crime; all measures can be used to fight crime.  We are living in the craziness of an abusive family, where violence is uncontrolled, but always justified.

It is time to stop it and not pass on the abuse of the past into the future.  The leaders of institutions can meet non-violence with non-violence; questions with dialogue; democracy with democracy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Prudent People


Today I am going to put in a word for the older brother in the Prodigal Son story.  You know the story, the younger son of a wealthy father asks for his share of the inheritance before his father has died.  His father gives it to him and the younger son takes off for a far country, I figure California, and runs through the entire fortune on wine, women and song and ends up working as the junior assistant deputy intern pig slopper on a pig farm, which for a Jewish boy, is not a good career move.  So, he finally decides that he would rather admit defeat and go back home.  The hired hands on his father’s farm live better than he is and so he heads home.

When he gets home, his father sees him coming from far away, and orders his servants to prepare a huge celebration for his returning son.

Here is the biblical text of what comes next:   This story is in the 15th chapter of Luke.

 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
   28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’    31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” 
About a year ago, I preached a sermon in which I spoke up for the younger brother, the Prodigal Son.  Because there is a lot to be said for taking risks, being adventurous, striking out on your own and trying to make your own fortune.   We admire people like that. 

But today, I want to speak up and put in a couple of good words for the Older Brother, the crabby, uptight, judgmental, goody-two-shoes older brother. 

It seems that there a more than a few older brothers around.  I call them prudent people.

Our country has been through a credit bubble – lots of money was to be made in lending money and as a result too much money was lent to people.  For a while, it seemed that there was very little risk involved in lending money.  Now, lots of people are stuck with loans they cannot pay, and lots of financial institutions carry loans that they cannot collect.   The creditors want to be paid back even if it drives the rest of the country into bankruptcy.  People are rebelling.   I am over-simplifying, of course.

But there is a group of people who throughout the credit bubble resisted the temptation to borrow much money.  They borrowed less, saved more, and consumed less.  They were counter-cultural; in a culture that pushed credit and consumption, they went without, or went with brand X, the local college, the used car, smaller house, the driving vacation. They were prudent.  They were responsible. 

Prudence is imagining yourself looking back at this moment and saying, “well, I shouldn’t have done that.” These prudent people looked ahead into the future and looked back to choose a less risky course for their lives. They were personally responsible and everything that has happened has reaffirmed the wisdom of that course in life.

The dramatic downturn in the economy in 2008 and 2009 has put the question of economic inequality onto the national agenda.  Sustained joblessness and recession has exposed the extent to which most people have been depending on debt and credit for their lifestyle. 

It’s all coming out now.  Not only is the income and wealth gap between the rich and the poor very wide, the working class and the middle class owe a lot of money as well. 

Now, people are revealing the amount of their indebtedness and the very real ways that their debts restrict their futures.   the prudent ones are resentful.  

Many people feel victimized by the financial system, seduced by easy credit and suckered into debts they cannot pay.   

All of this talk is making some of those who have been prudent very angry.

The idea that those who are deep in debt are "victims" of a system rubs them the wrong way.  The idea that they, the prudent ones, might someday indirectly absorb the cost of relieving some other’s people’s debt angers them.  

Financial prudence has been, to them, a moral question, a question of character.  The sense of doing the right thing has been one of the compensations for the temporary pleasures of consumption.   Other people got plasma TV’s; prudent people got pride in their sense of personal responsibility.

To those who have been prudent, it seems that the only just thing to do is to let those who were imprudent suffer the consequences.  If someone borrowed more than they could afford for a house, then they should face foreclosure.  If someone borrowed too much money for a education for a career unlikely to generate the income to pay back the loan, perhaps they should go bankrupt.  If banks lent money unwisely, then the bank should fail.   If the bank's losses outrun the coverage of the FDIC, then the depositors and shareholders should have to eat the losses.

The ethic of personal responsibility is based on this cause and effect, crime and punishment reasoning.  If a person makes an unwise or irresponsible decision, then there will be negative consequences and that person should suffer them.  To rescue them from that consequence is to create a moral hazard – an actual incentive to be irresponsible. 

It is the logic behind the original restrictions on abortion. The logic was  if women did not face the consequence of unwanted pregnancies, then they had no incentive to avoid sexual activity.   It is the logic behind that recent incident in which it appeared that the audience at a candidates’ debate thought that an otherwise healthy person who chose not to buy health insurance should be allowed to die if suddenly very sick.   If there is no consequence to being irresponsible, then there is no reason to be responsible.

We assume that this is the point of view of the older brother: if the fattened calf is slaughtered for the prodigal son, then there no reason why anybody should stay at home. 

But I want you to hear the story again, because it reveals something else going on as well.

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

What the older brother says is filled with anger and resentment to the father.  “I have slaved for you all these years.  I have followed your every order.” 

And the older brother resents the fact that he has not been recognized and acknowledged for his years of obedience.  “You never gave me so much as a young goat for a party for me and my friends”

Wow!  I think that this is a very insightful touch in this story.  I think that what irks a lot of people is not that the guilty sometimes seem to get away with their sins, but that we are not adequately rewarded for doing the right thing.   If God just spoke to me with an “attaboy – I like the way that you gave it your all at work this week.”   Or a young goat.  Or a tasty tofu casserole. 

The older brother has submitted to the discipline of the prevailing economic order, which was feudal and agricultural.  The prevailing economic order is “Work like a dog for your father and then get everything when he dies.”  That will keep you on the straight and narrow. 

There is anger here, and resentment, and envy.  Envy for the love expressed from the father to the prodigal son, and perhaps even envy for his brother who had a great adventure with wine, women and song at least for a while.

So the prudent people, the ones who avoided ruinous debt and managed to keep their heads above water deserve an attaboy, a pat on the back.  In many ways, they were swimming upstream for these last decades.   They have a right to what they are feeling at this point in our history.

But still, as much as they did well swimming upstream, we have to ask why the current was strong against them.   Why was there so much force behind easy credit and borrowing money?  It was not just because people wanted easy credit.

As we ponder the moral implications of individual’s behavior in the economy, we should understand how the economy works and the role of personal debt in it.

The American alternative to the European welfare state has been consumer credit society. 

One example:  in Norway, college education is Quote Free Unquote.  It’s not free, it’s paid for by taxes.  The individual student does not pay for college education.  In the United States, college education is not paid for by taxes, but is paid for by the student.  And since most students cannot afford it, they borrow the money to pay for it.    We don’t have free education, we have a student loan system.  Consumer credit is the alternative to the welfare state.

Another example:  In most developed countries, health care is heavily subsidized by tax monies.   Here some is, for elders and for poor people and everybody else depends on health insurance from employers.  Since the cost is very high, insurance doesn’t pay for it all, and the unpaid portion is put on the patients’ credit card.   Consumer credit shores up the gaps.

Another example:  we have invested very little in mass transit, hence almost everyone needs a car.  Since most people could not pay for a car in cash, most people borrow the money to buy a car.  Nowadays, most young people cannot even afford the downpayment on a car, so they lease one, another form of consumer credit.

Indeed, as the wages and salaries of most working class and middle class people have stagnated over the last 30-40 years, it has been the explosion of consumer credit that has allowed consumer spending to continue.  Our economy is based on ever-expanding consumer credit. 

Our most profitable companies, the big financial institutions, trade in consumer credit to great benefit.  It is telling to note that in the banking world, those prudent people who only use a credit card for convenience, who pay off their whole balance every month, are called “deadbeats,” since they add nothing to the bank’s bottom line.

Thursday, three days ago was the two month birthday of Occupy Wall Street.  In these two months, I have been learning much about our economy and the role that the financial industry plays in it.  It has been an educational period for us all, and it will, it seems continue.  We’re in a learning period right now; we have been there before.  Ten years ago, most of us couldn’t have told the difference between Iraq and Iran, but we learned because we had to learn.

I think what we are learning is that the economy of this country works for the benefit of the financial companies, Wall Street, in the vernacular.  It is a system that gains much of its wealth from consumer debt and other forms of debt.  How well any of us manage our own debt does not make a difference in the end, except to ourselves and our families.  I believe that any improvement of our life together will only come by reducing the political power of these financial institutions, and in that, all of us, the wise and the unwise, the prudent and imprudent, the prodigal children and the older siblings all have a common interest.

We are called to the virtues of humility and empathy: to see our successes and failures in this economy as not merely the result of our personal qualities: to see the common humanity beneath both success and failure, and to put aside the pride, envy, shame and resentment that stand between us.


Friday, November 11, 2011

"What Time Is It? Questions from James Luther Adams to Unitarian Universalists of Today."

I was honored to be invited by Rev. George Kimmich Beach to respond to his lecture at the 16th Annual conference of the James Luther Adams Foundation.  His topic was "What is Past is Prologue:  James Luther Adams and Unitarian Universalism."  Dr. Michael Hogue, of Meadville-Lombard Theological School also responded to his essay.  I understand that all of these works will be gathered up and published at some point.  But in the meantime, here is my response, not as it was given, and not as it was planned, but as I now would have liked to have delivered it.



If there is anything that I take from James Luther Adams, it is the necessity of a lively historical awareness.  Not only the knowledge of previous history, but also an awareness of this present moment as the product of that history.  And more, this present moment is also a valve moment; a moment through which the past enters into the future.  How do we, standing here, tonight, understand the historical currents that have brought us to here and what are the possibilities present in this moment to change its course?  Adams calls upon us to “take time seriously” – to ask “what time is it, right now?”

There are three eras of Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist history present here.   One is the era of James Luther Adams, a man who was a young man in the 1930’s and at the heights of his analytical and theological powers in the 50’s and 60’s.   Much of this era was before merger and some of it immediately after merger.   It was an era in which Unitarianism went from being a religion whose political views, on the whole at the level of the rank and file, was good-government Moderate Republicanism – and during that era, Unitarian Universalism committed itself to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and the movement for integration.  And eventually, it wrestled with the radicalization of that movement. 

During that period of time, especially during the 60’s, progressivism was growing and ascendant and held the moral high ground in the culture.  I remember those days when I was a child in my Unitarian Church in Youngstown, Ohio.    

But 1968 and 1969 were a turning point for Unitarian Universalism.  Not only because of our internal trauma of the black empowerment controversy, but because of the election of Richard Nixon as President.  Richard Nixon won by naming and mobilizing a broad cultural resentment against progressivism and liberalism.  It was everything about people like us and what we stood for that identified as the people’s enemy: our permissiveness, our skepticism; our internationalism; our nascent break with patriarchy; our sexual liberalism; our flirtations with mind-altering drugs; our cultural radicalism.  After Nixon won in 1968, there followed 12 years of intense political, cultural and religious struggle between a defensive liberalism and an aggressive conservatism.  In 1980, the election of Reagan confirmed what was already clear everywhere; liberalism in all of its forms had been culturally defeated.

Understand that please: in 1961, the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalist took place in an atmosphere in which great hopes were attached to a new religion for a new time.  But there was only 7 or 8 years in which the cultural zeitgeist matched our mood and ambitions.  

Just seven or eight years.

For 40 years since then, religious liberalism and liberal religion have been wandering in the desert.   We have been operating in a culture in which cultural, political and religious conservatism have been aggressive and dominant.  

For most of us in this room, this has been our experience –to be religious leaders in a religious movement that feels like it is in exile, that feels like a saving remnant rather than a vanguard, where our churches feel like  refuges rather than like launching pads. 

For my entire life, Unitarian Universalism has been struggling with itself to maintain hope, to understand its mission, to generate real fervor, and to not get stuck in endless circular debates about what we are doing wrong.  

For my entire adult life, Unitarian Universalists have been obsessed with the question: “What’s wrong with us?  There must be something wrong with us that we are not as successful as our rivals.  What’s wrong with us?”

We survived; we changed a lot over time.  It would be a great historical project to catalogue the changes in Unitarian Universalism from 1968 to 2008: how did Liberal Religion adapt and development during a long period of cultural conservatism and hostility to liberalism?

That has been the second period of our modern history and many of us are in that generation: the Desert people:  UU’s of the exile. 

The tide started turning in 2008, as marked by the election of President Obama.  (Of course, I don’t believe that Presidents have the actual power to set the cultural tone, but their campaign themes and election show what is going on below the surface.)  This man, who went to UU Sunday schools in his childhood, was elected as the result of a tremendous surge of rank and file activity and financial commitment.     

And we are now in another period of intense political struggle, like 1968 to 1980, but now the forces of liberalism are resurgent and the conservatism is on the defensive. 

And this year, The Occupy movement has put issues of economic class on the agenda for the first time since before World War 2.

We are literally in a third period of our modern UU history now, and no one is of this period.  No adult has ever grown up in a period in which we could assume that very large numbers of our fellow citizens share our basic worldview.

So here we are, in the opening years of a new historical period.  It may be the long conservative captivity of the culture is coming to an end.  

The question before us tonight  is how can a deeper understanding of the thought of James Luther Adams be used to guide the flow of time through this room tonight into a different and better future?

Fortunately for us, Kim Beach has distilled Adams’ thought into three overriding subjects and then distinguished three crucial thoughts for each those overriding subjects, which then I will ruthlessly strip of all nuance and subtlety and reduce to 9 questions offer up as guides to our thinking.  I am a preacher and I have to put the cookies down low enough for the people to reach them.

The three overriding topics: 
(1) Religion in relation to the human condition
(2) society in relation to the human community
(3) history in relation to human fulfillment.

Beach attaches three key concepts to each topic.
To the first, (Religion in relation to the human condition), Beach reads Adams as focusing on the affections, volition and conversion.

To the second (society in relation to the human community) Beach reads Adams as focusing on vocation, association and covenant.

And in regards to the third (history in relation to human fulfillment), Beach sees Adams concerned with sacred tradition, eschatology and Christology.

So, let me get at the same topics with these nine questions.
1. (Affections)  What do we love?  Or to be more clear , where, when, how are we most in love, most at the intersection of our intimate being and the ultimate dimension?  There seems to be among us such a deep hunger for the embrace of deep community, supportive, accepting, loving.  Phrases like the beloved community have such power among us, there is something there of our affections, of the being that we love being.  Rev. Nate Walker of First UU Philadelphia described his vision of us as being the kind of people who, when we enter into a situation, especially a troubled, disturbed situation, everyone sighs and says “O Good, the UU’s are here.”    It was a vision of a kind of us being a particular kind of being. 

2.  (Volition) What do we really want?  There is a difference between what we love and what we will – to what end do we exercise our will – who is the being that we try to be.    

3.  (Conversion) What are ready to give up? What is demonic in the exercise of our will?  Where are we on the wrong path, what we want that is not worthy?

These three religious questions:  how religion relates to our human condition have been our preoccupation within Unitarian Universalism for these long decades and took on a morbid urgency in this exile period.  We are not sure that our will matches what we love, or we are afraid that it does, but that it is demonic. 

When we ask the perennial question as to whether “we walk the talk” or discuss the conflict around “loving the world vs. changing the world” or the ponder the choice between “intimate community vs. missional community:” these questions are about the relationship between what we love and what we will.  We have to remember that we have struggled with those questions in a time when we feel the culture is hostile and when the question of “What is wrong with us?” has been uppermost in our thoughts.  They all must discerned anew in this time.

4.  (Vocation) What are we called to do?  Our personal vocation which arises out of the interplay of our will and our most intimate/ultimate being.  We hear the question of vocation in the angst about whether our people have a consumerist attitude toward the church.  Vocation asks “what is a UU’s mission in life?”   And when joke that there’s no way to become a more serious UU except to go to seminary.  That’s a clue to the lack of clarity about vocation in Unitarian Universalism.

5.  (Association) Who are our comrades?  “Associations” is an antique word for social networks.   

Adams envisions a world in which people form “voluntary associations” which act in coalition with each other to promote the social good.  A congregation would be a voluntary association in a coalition with neighborhood organizations and other civic organizations.  That is not the way that it is anymore.

Society is now an interwoven network of networks.  Facebook makes this very clear.  You go to a fellow congregants’s page and you see that they have 200 friends.  You have only 25 friends in common.  You can see that the congregation is one network connected dozens, indeed hundreds of other networks. 

I serve a congregation of Unitarian Universalists.  We have a building and a membership and officers and a staff.  But we are also mixed online and offline network of people, each of whom is part of other networks.  The church I serve has 350 members and about the same number of facebook fans and these two groups are only partially the same people.  Some of those non-member fans are far away and go to other UU churches and some are not UU at all. 

Some of these associations are voluntary and some are not.  We are in an association with the world as human beings, and with our country as citizens, with others with whom we define ourselves, or others define for us, as sharing an identity. 

What does a voluntary association look like in this new age?   The multiplicity of associations leads to questions of covenant: in what way are we committed to others in the network of connections we find ourselves.   

6.  (Covenant)  How shall we be with our comrades?

The last three questions are around the subjects that Beach has called sacred tradition, eschatology and Christology.

I would ask contemporary Unitarian Universalism, these three questions:

7.  (Sacred Tradition)  What is the story we are enacting?  What are the full dimensions of that story?

Unitarian Universalism has, for the most part, dropped out of the grand story of Christianity:  the creation, fall and redemption of the Universe and all its people through God’s grace.  For more than one reason, we are cautious about identifying ourselves with a national story, or even a national people’s story from below. 

We Unitarian Universalists have been seeing ourselves as enacting the story of a small and ambitious faith’s survival, through our desperate efforts to heal ourselves of whatever is wrong with us.

Our story has been our struggle to define ourselves in a world that wants to trivialize and diminish us as sappy headed fools.

The story we tell of ourselves helps us to overcome the shame and humiliation of being a liberal in a world that thinks it knows better. 

As a result, the story we have been telling ourselves has been anxious and brittle and defensive and most of all, sectarian.   We make ourselves the heroes of our own story – we have trouble seeing ourselves now in this new era as not marked with our yellow tee-shirts.  The 99% movement has been about seeing how much we all have in common; the yellow tee-shirt is about how we are different.   Sometimes we are busy being Capital U Unitarian Universalists that we have trouble being small-u universalists.

8.  (Eschatology)  The overriding question is “What time is it?”  What time is it in our story?  How does this story we are a part of end?  I believe that we are at the beginning of a new third period of UU history -- one in which Unitarian Universalist congregations and churches are nodal points in a vast network of networks coming together to move our culture in a more compassionate, just and inclusive direction.  It is a hopeful story, a joyous adventure, a story that might be the best years of our lives.  

9.  (Christology)  To me, the question of Christology is this? Is it possible that God would be active in human history?   Is it possible that Yahweh would part the Red Sea to save God’s people?  Is it possible that God would be incarnated in a Jewish carpenter and die on a cross, and thus prove which side of history God is on.  Is it possible that God would make Himself known in the holds of slaveships, to light there freedom’s fuse? 

How is the divine at work in this work we do?

I make up my benediction every week; it is a chance to finally, in the midst of the dust and heat of my preaching, say what I had been trying to say for 20 minutes and often I come to these words, some of which are mine and some of which I have taken from my mentors and models:  Frank Schulman, Ruppert Lovely, Carl Scovel, Kim Beach and James Luther Adams.   I stand in the well of the sanctuary and say something like this:

“There is a power at work in the Universe, a great good intention at the heart of Creation, a creative, sustaining and transforming power, that will carry you in every action you take for justice, for community, and for love.  You can depend on that power; you can rely on that power; you can trust that power with your heart and hopes, for all your life and with all your love.  Be not afraid; and Go now in peace.”

Monday, October 24, 2011

Occupied ! Sermon of 10/23/11


Occupied!
Delivered 10/23/11
First Unitarian Church of Worcester, MA

The book of Leviticus was written, scholars think, about 2500 years ago.  It was part of a great movement of formalizing the religion of the Hebrews, establishing rules and procedures and laws to govern all aspects of life.   And as we have heard, they called for a Jubilee year every 50 years, a time when all the debts accumulated, all the service indentures, indeed all the land sales of the previous half century would be reversed.  It is not clear how this was implemented if ever.  I bring it up not because I think that we are supposed to do this, but because it shows that even 2500 years ago, justice minded people were trying to figure out ways to clear debts in an orderly fashion. 

As the newspaper today shows, this is still a problem, or a problem again.  The world is awash with debts that there is little hope can be repaid.  From whole countries like Greece to individuals that you know who are underwater in their mortgages or encumbered with student debt at the beginning of their career, or even unpaid utility bills that have mounted up. 

As the newsletter blurb for this sermon shows, I have been preaching about the imbalances and injustices of the US economy for some time now.  Two years ago I talked about debt – the explosion of bad debts throughout the economy.  Last April, I talked about the incredible inequality in income and wealth that had developed in the country.
The two are related.
The most profitable activity in our economy is has become the capital market, the buying and selling credit and debt and equities. The accelerating economic inequality in the country has been result of the dominance of financial capital – the big fortunes are in what is called the financial services companies.  Of course, this kind of money has its own way of exerting political power, and the financial sector wanted to be free of regulations and restrictions and soon enough the politicians complied. 
The result was a credit bubble – lots of loans made that were unwise, and they bundled and sold, to the point that no one really knew who in the end held those loans.  So no one could trust anyone with further credit.  We entered into this recession, which is a downturn in economic activity arising from a credit crunch.

Unemployment skyrocketed and has stayed very high, and now the economy is dragged down because fewer people have the ability to buy things.  It was a very rapid downward spiral and a very slow recovery.
Wealth and income inequality increases as conditions get worse.  Not only are the wealthy much more wealthy than we are, but apparently we owe them a lot more money, too. 

The people have been very restless, looking for a way to challenge the status quo.  The people are looking for the movement to carry their aspirations – the movement that has the combination of the right demands, the right form of organization, the right cultural style, the right strategy.

I think that both the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement, or as it sometimes called the 99% movement are ongoing proposals for that popular movement.  Look at them as experiments in populism, each with its own analysis and set of demands and strategy.  

I have been active in supporting the Occupy movement – especially with a group of UU ministers who have been conducting weekly Sunday evening vesper services for and with the Occupy Boston site at Dewey Square in Boston.  I have also been by the Lake Park encampment in Worcester and have contributed money for supplies in both locations.  I urge any of you who are sympathetic to it and curious to go and meet these mostly young people.  Step over the barrier of your shyness and your habits of quietude and domesticity and get involved. 

If you don’t agree with them, or have a different analysis of what is wrong, then by all means, find a way to express yourself.  I am not trying to persuade you. I am trying to energize you.

But stepping back for a minute, what I really want to talk about today is this:  what does liberal religion ask of us in times like these?  In times of economic turmoil…. In times when economic Sometimes the historic moment takes away the choice to be on the sidelines and uninvolved. 

Now, you, by now, know what I have to say.  I say every week that you will be happier and healthier and a blessing to the people around you if you live as a spiritual person, with a liberal spirituality.  And we think that a spiritual person is honest and humble.  To be a spiritual person, to have a spiritual family, you need to be grateful and reverent.  And you need to have empathy for others, and to be open to the people who are different and to new ideas, and to be self-possessed.  You need to know who you are and be able to be different from others with confidence and still be friends. 
Why do we think that those values are what gives a person a healthy spirituality?  Because they work; they may not make you rich or powerful, but they will make you happier and healthier and a blessing to those around you.  You know I don’t much care why you believe that these are the essential virtues of a spiritual life – you can believe in the Bible, or Buddha, or angels, or in a personal message from God, or from reading Star Trek, Star Wars, the Lord of The Rings, or Twilight, or Harry Potter.  Honesty, humility, gratitude, reverence, empathy, openness and self-possession, or some similar list, will work. 

The spiritual path in liberal religion is learning, practicing how to be that kind of person and raising your children to that kind of person.

There are all kinds of ways: you can expose yourself to new situations and to new people; you can try to educate yourself; you can engage in introspection and reflection, even therapy. You can meditate to practice staying in the present moment.  I think that it helps to come to church every week, just to remind yourself again of what you are trying to do with your life.  And there are all kinds of ways to express those values and virtues.

And every situation you come into, in your personal life, and in the life of your society, every historical moment gives you the opportunity to develop those virtues.  The spirit is a muscle and the work that it does is choose.  And just like a muscle, it gets stronger every time you make it work. 

Our present moment in history is a gym for our spiritual muscles.  We are faced with choices every day, every time we read the newspaper, every time we form an opinion about what is going on.

We have to exercise our honesty muscle.  I am not so worried about what we say to others, though that is important.  Right now, are you looking at the present situation honestly?  Are facing reality? Or are you pretending that reality is something different and better than it is?

In April last year, I talked about some surveys that researchers did on how Americans thought about the wealth distribution in the United States.  Most of us hold wildly inaccurate understandings of wealth.  If you ask people how they think income and wealth are distributed, they imagine that the United States is far more egalitarian than it actually is.  In fact, they think that the United States is more egalitarian than Sweden actually is.  This is a time for learning, and research and truth.  It is time to choose an honest encounter with the truth. 
Because we are, for the most part, people who come from families that have worked reasonably hard and have done reasonably well, we like to think that that is the way the country works for everyone.  Is that true?  Or would we just like to think it’s true?  The world is outside your door; go take a look at it ! 
We need to exercise our humility.  Humility and honesty are deeply related.  We have to see other people clearly and to do so we have to reveal ourselves clearly.  If it seems like the American Dream is working out well for everybody around you – they are working hard and getting ahead and have kept the credit cards under control and have a reasonable mortgage and are saving for their retirement right on schedule – you should remember that a bunch of the people around you are hiding what is really happening in their lives.  They are too ashamed to reveal the truth.  (Really, if it is really true that everybody around is doing well, you might want to join a more diverse country club.)  The opposite of humility is shame.  Humility exposes, so there is honesty.  Shame hides and puts up a false front.

We are talking about money here. Our economic culture that is very moralistic about debt and self-reliance.  Do you have more than you deserve?  Are you getting what you deserve.  Do you deserve your pay?  If you are poor, is it because with your lousy attitude, it’s all you deserve. We are more moralistic about debt and insolvency than we are about sex.  Really, think about it.

I say that I am supporting the Occupy Movement, but that is not exactly true.  I think occupying parks and making a permanent demonstration site is a OK, but like all tactics, it will outlive its usefulness.   What really attracts me is the frame of the movement of the 99%.  That my friends and allies are 99% of the population.  That I have a common cause with 99% of the population. 

Such a frame is a call to exercise the spiritual muscle of empathy and solidarity.  Is that really true?  How does that change the way that I look at people?  The policeman? The felon? The drug addict? The welfare recipient?  The professor? The panhandler? The homeless guy?  The doctor and the nurse?  The bank teller?

On the one hand, I am a Universalist, and I believe that every person, even the fattest of the fat cat banker, is a child of God and is equally beloved by God and that we all share the same human fate, but I do believe that there are competing economic interests in our society.  Thinking of it as 99 to 1 stretches me in ways that make me more empathetic and more committed to welfare of people around me. 

Karl Barth said that the preacher should mount the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other, and that he should interpret the newspaper through the lens of the Bible.  Barth believed that the Bible was the Word of God; it would have been nice for God to leave us a clear instruction manual for life, but I do not believe that He did.  I do believe that the great religious traditions of the world, including ours, the tradition of Liberal Religion, call us to live according to values higher than profit or loss, higher than paying taxes or getting a refund, higher than self-sufficiency or dependency.   Our tradition calls for us to confront the world depicted in our daily newspaper as people of Good Spirit, honest, humble and whole-heartedly joined with our brothers and sisters.