Monday, October 24, 2011
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.