Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A shocking solution to the student loan crisis

After a recent posting on the student loan crisis, someone sent me the following note.  S/he requested anonymity since s/he felt that the special interests that control this country would do everything in their power to suppress this kind of common sense solution to our nation's problems.  S/he hopes that if this idea comes from a blog of a respected religious leader, patriotic legislators will be able to reach across the aisle and come together for the good of our country, defying the extremes of both parties.

Well, I am not sure that I am that "respected religious leader" but I am willing to do what I can to bring our country back from the brink of madness and partisan bickering.

His/Her proposal:

We should forgive all student loans past and future in exchange for each student serving two years of mandatory national service in the armed services, inner-city teaching, conservation work or working in the newly nationalized American porn industry.

The adult entertainment industry is rapidly growing and extremely profitable. Nationalizing this industry will bring a stream of dollars to the government that will go far to offset our chronic budget deficit. Like gambling, or potentially drugs, bringing these income streams into the government is a well-established precedent.

American young adults, who represent the diversity of the world's population, are already considered to be the world's standard for youthful sexiness. It is time to use our greatest national resource -- our human capital -- to serve our nation's purpose.  Why let Abercrombie and Fitch reap all the benefits.

It is a well-established fact that older and less attractive members of our society are more than willing to pay for high-quality adult entertainment products. (They will even pay top dollar for low-quality product.) Think of the increase in sales when they know that they are helping grow our national economy. When we understand that the middle-aged male consumer of adult entertainment is a "job creator", what had been a source of shame and embarrassment will be seen as the pleasant exercise of one's patriotic duty.

Surely, after the extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we cannot say that, as a nation, we are above asking our young people to place their bodies in our hands for the greater national cause.

It's actually less of a sacrifice than military service. Many of these young adults are having sex now, but is selfish and meaningless sex, undertaken for the pleasure of a few individuals. They should be having sex for America.

A final note: the most important commodity in the adult entertainment industry are young, white, blond, females. The United States is a premier provider of this highly profitable raw material. Our only potential competitors in supplying this essential ingredient are the Scandanavian countries. Fortunately, they have chosen not to enter this competition, as they provide low-cost and even free college education to their young adults. Their loss is our gain.
There you have it.  I think that it is a shocking proposal, far outside the mainstream.  I am referring to its bold and explicit advocacy of an industrial policy, in which government bureaucrats pick the winners and losers in the free market.  Government should never do what private enterprise can do on its own.

Student Loan Crisis in 5 steps

1.  Manufacturing jobs disappear in the United States, leaving only very low-wage service jobs or more technical and skilled careers.  But instead of investing in manufacturing in the US, the country makes a tacit decision that everyone should go to college and get one of these higher-skill, higher-paying jobs. It's the free market solution.

2.  Everybody, as a result of Free Market decision #1,  needs a college education.  But instead of making college education more plentiful and more affordable (investing more in community colleges, lowering fees and tuition, or even making it free, like Norway), the country adopts another  'Free Market" solution.   We decide to finance higher education by student debt.  

3. As an unintended consequence, college costs soar, for-profit colleges multiply and prestigious universities acquire endowments the size of small countries.  Banks make fortunes handling student debt.  Why shouldn't they?  It's a free market solution.  

4. However, the underlying problem remains: the economy still does not produce the jobs needed to pay off the student debts that have been incurred.  Young adults face the beginning of their careers with debts that are crushing them.  This is will affect their ability to take on mortgages, make consumer purchases and save for retirement.  Student debt becomes a drag on the whole economy.  

5.  If these young adults were airlines, chain stores, or automakers, our system would allow them to shed their unpayable debts through some sort of bankruptcy proceeding.  However, since they are young adults of the middle or working classes who have aspired beyond their station, they need to be taught the hard lesson of proper debt management.  No relief is possible.  After all, it's a free market.

One solution proposed has been to allow student loans to be discharged through bankruptcy proceedings.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Beyond Congregations -- What's a Religious Movement?

When some people hear that President Morales wants us to think of ourselves as "a religious movement," they get anxious.  It sounds like the UUA will become even more boundary-less and intentionally less organized.

As I understand it, the UUA will never be a "religious movement".  After all, it is a legally incorporated non-profit organization with all the appropriate IRS status designations.  It has a Board and everything.  These are not the signs of a "movement".  Was the "Great Awakening" ever incorporated?

Liberal Religion is a movement among the people.  It is a spontaneous mass -movement of resignation from most forms of "organized religion" as people adopt as their religious views these propositions:

religious traditions are cultural responses to the basic human condition,
religious truth claims are unverifiable,
the goal of the religious life is ethical behavior
an ethical approach to life includes religious pluralism.

The Liberal Religious movement is very diverse, very unorganized, and holds a wide variety of opinions about all spiritual and religious questions.  It seems to be at least one third of the population of the United States.

Unitarian Universalism is an institution that operates within the Liberal Religious movement, one of many such institutions.  When we go "beyond congregations" we are seeking to find additional ways to engage those people who are already on the move, religiously and spiritually.

Instead of being less focused and less organized, Unitarian Universalism will have to become more clear, more focused and more intentional about how to engage people who are religiously liberal, but religiously inactive.  We will also have to be more supple, more invention and more improvisational as we work with specific people in specific situations.

Beyond Congregations and modern UU History

I divide the history of Unitarian Universalism (since merger) into 3 periods.  See my paper in response to Kim Beach at the James Luther Adams Foundation in 2011. 

Most of our assumptions about Unitarian Universalism come from the longest period -- 1968-2008 -- the period in which conservatism in all forms was aggressive and hegemonic while liberalism in all forms was defensive.   It was a wilderness period.

In our wilderness period, two responses arose:  One was to move to the Left politically.  The other was to stand on "religious community" as our core meaning and purpose.  UU's did not feel able to aggressively challenge conservative theology in the public square.  Instead they turned to the long strand of congregationalism as being their essential meaning.  "Congregations" and "covenant" defined us. These terms were applied to all sorts of congregations -- from those that sat in pews to those that sat in circles. But in all circumstances, our gospel tended to be reduced to "everyone needs to be in a religious community" and "our religious community welcomes everybody."

Now, in a third period of UU history, when we see again that our religious views would be welcomed by a sizable minority of people, we see that our focus on "religious community" is too narrow.  We will end up waiting for people to come to us, rather than meeting them where they are.

President Peter Morales is right in saying that we need to develop ways of connecting to people who are not going to join our present congregations.  And I think that most UU leaders accept that proposition, although the mechanisms are still undefined.

But it is foreign to us, given our assumptions of our wilderness period, to think about touching people's lives in ways other than joining an organization of some type, or becoming part of a community.

We will, instead, be touching people's lives first through a message now.  We will be bringing them a point of view, a consistent way of looking at themselves, others and the world that we live in.

So the question for us now is not "what new forms of organizations should UU's seek to build?" but "what do we want to say to people?"  How do we want people to think of us?   What should they think about how we want them to live?

Our Message and Beyond Congregations

If Unitarian Universalism is called to engage people in settings other than congregational life, then our message becomes all the more important.

I have posted a big chunk of my sermon from yesterday because I am trying to define our top level message as it would be heard by people who are not familiar with us.  What is it that every person should know about what Unitarian Universalism wants them to do with their lives?

Our Good News

The heart of my sermon on January 29th.

Religious traditions are, first of all, messages to the people of the world.  Is the message that we are sending into the world good news to the people who hear it?  Is it helpful to them?  Does it speak to their condition?
We are on an errand into a world unknown to us, and all we can carry is our message.
Our message comes down to three affirmations and challenges:  
The first is "self-possession.  You are an inherently worthy person, you have a right to be here, you are welcome in the Universe -- that’s the affirmation -- what’s  the challenge?  You have to think for yourself, be responsible for how you use this good gift of life.  

How many people need, desperately need, to hear this message?  
Almost everyone... 
all those who suffer discrimination, stereotyping and racism, the poor and the "uncultured", the LGTQ people, the immigrants, all those of diminished social status.. 
And beyond all social diminishments are the personal shames and humiliations of your personal experience your family life, your social life at a young age, even high school.  There are people out there, no, there are people in here, who have had all the outward advantages in life and still feel worthless and unlovable.   

Liberal Religion’s message is an unflinching affirmation of each person’s worth and dignity. 

It is not the Calvinist message that you are, by definition, an unworthy sinner, offensive to God.  

It is also not the hyper-individualist message that you alone are the only one responsible for the conditions of your life -- that all your suffering must be your own fault.  
You are a worthy person; you have a right to take control of your life and to be a moral agent.  
And the second affirmation is that not only are you a worthy being, so are all the other people around you.  God loves all of them, too.  

And so the challenge is for you to learn to take an empathetic, compassionate, loving attitude toward them.  To become open-minded and open-hearted.  You will run into people all the time who are outside of your necessarily limited understanding of the way the world works.  You are going to be stretched all the time to try to understand another point of view.  Every one of us can point to examples in our own lives when our minds were opened.  What seemed completely unacceptable became acceptable.  Remember when you first met a transgender person?

The third affirmation and challenge that Liberal Religion makes is that “no, you are not crazy; human society is unfair.”  
I think that this is new:  in the old days of classical liberalism, the belief was that human society started out as fair and just, but unfortunately, some bad things happened since then.  That’s the thinking behind the whole social contract -- One day, a group of men who were equals to each other got together and decided to have a society.  Everybody had their rights, and their responsibilities and some people were given power for the good of everybody else.  
Since then, there’s been some bad behavior and if we just correct those problems, human society will return to be a well-run, socially stable, friendly and fair place to live.  Kind of like the hobbits at the beginning of the Lord of Rings.  Or the small towns portrayed in modern country music.  I think most people have some version of this fantasy, and it is a fantasy.  A previous time when human society worked and was just. I hear it about the church.  It is hard to hear it when someone challenges our particular version of Eden.  That the good old days were only good for some.  
Of course, the illusion of the good old days is actually oppressive to us as well.  It channels our sense of power into negative and judgmental ways, asking who is at fault?  Who ruined paradise?   Instead of seeing ourselves as powerful and powerfully moving toward justice; it only validates our prejudices and narrowness.  
So, there is an affirmation and a challenge in this third part of the message -- yes, human society is unjust AND you can do something about it, through your own power and the power of your solidarity - empathy - compassion for others.   We are potentially moving toward a better world. 
These are the core messages of the liberal church, of the liberal religious movement, of Unitarian Universalism.  They are messages which seem almost second nature to us -- they sound familiar.  Some of the time, we actually believe them and live them out, but often we don’t.  

Who needs our message?  We do.  And just about everyone else. 

So our message is needed by people of every age, and every class and every ethnicity and every sexuality and every gender expression and every nationality and every profession.  Not every wants to hear it, that’s OK.  We may not be able to communicate across all the differences to everyone, but that’s OK, too.  
Let me quote Walt Whitman now: 
This is the meal equally set, this the meal for natural hunger, 
It is for the wicked as well as the righteous, I make appointments with all.
I will not have a single person slighted or left away.
This is our message, our good news, our gospel: 
You are a worthy soul; stand cool and composed against every condition.
Around you are other worthy souls, as worthy as you, extend to them your open heart.  Before you lies a world that needs to be made more just.  You can do it. 
These are simple statements, but they are not shallow statements.  

There is a long tradition that has led us to these beliefs.  

At heart, our beliefs are a very particular distillation of the Christian tradition, a kind of simplified and syncretic Christian humanism slash transcendentalism.  It has a history of heroes and heretics, preachers and teachers, prophets and poets. A person could study it for a lifetime, just to fully understand it.
But no one has to understand the software that makes an iPod work.  All that matters to most people is that it is simple and clean, beautiful, easy to use and easy to learn.  It makes their lives better. It brings them joy and beauty.  

(Turn on iPhone and hold it to the mic.  Music playing)

 The same should be true of liberal religion -- is our message simple, clean and beautiful, easy to use and easy to learn? because it will make people’s lives better.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Musings on Morales 3 Beyond Congregations

Maybe if we stop trying to make our congregations all things to all people, they can get better at being some thing to some people.

Let a hundred flowers bloom.

Beyond Congregations 2

The link to the Morales article under discussion:  Beyond Congregations

President Peter is right, of course.  Lots more people identify themselves as UU than are members of our congregations.  Only a third of Baby Boomers are active in a church, about half of the same measure among the generation before them.  Participation falls off a cliff in the generations younger than the Boomers.  New forms of organization are going to be required; our present congregations will have to be our base camps for explorations into the wider world.

This would be a dire situation if Liberal Religion did not have a meaning and a message that can help lots of people grow into the people that they want to be. But we do.

In a world where most people are defined by others, either through discrimination and stereotyping, or through aggressive acculturation, Unitarian Universalism and Liberal Religion calls people to self-definition and self-determination.  We also call people to open-mindedness, which I think is a spiritual aspiration for a large number of people.

We have the message; there are numerous methods for developing these attributes.  The modality we offer -- religious community in a congregation -- no longer works.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Beyond Congregations Thoughts -- #1

The first question that everyone should ask when the President of the UUA writes something for us all to consider is: for whom and to whom is he speaking?

Some people like to talk about 'The UUA' as if it were a single, monolithic body.  Not true anymore.  Remember that the Moderator of UUA endorsed a different candidate for the Presidency of the UUA than our current President.  Moderator Courter endorsed Laurel Hallman.  Laurel Hallman was more favorable to "policy governance" than Peter Morales.

I am told that the staff and the board are not always on the same page right now.

The Board of the UUA (and Gini Courter) has been quite clear that they are trying to make themselves more accountable to the congregations.  That was the impetus behind The Great Disaffiliation Campaign of a few years ago, when the Independent Affiliate Organization were weaned from official status.

Now, we have President Morales calling for an increased focus on non-congregational forms of Unitarian Universalism.  That's what the independent affiliates were.

Does the UUA Board share the analysis that the growth of Unitarian Universalism will include lots of non-congregational organizations?  I don't know.  Does anyone?

I'm Back

Been away -- some computer problems, some pressing assignments.
But there are lots of things to talk about --
I promise more posts and shorter posts.

Monday, January 02, 2012

What is it about? Thoughts on Peter Boullata's excellent blogpost.

My friend and colleague Peter Boullata has written the most "liked" and "shared" blogpost of end of 2011.


He has a struck a chord with many of UU ministers.  With great passion, Peter articulates the frustrations and disappointments that many of us feel about the denomination and the churches for which we labor. Bookmark it and then print it out on archival-quality, non-acid paper. Put the paper in the shoebox you have marked for the Smithsonian.  It will do quite well as a historical document of this moment in the story of liberal religion in the USA.  As Eliot's Journey Magi asks, "Had we come all that way for a birth, or for a death?"

He has provoked me.

I see three strategic approaches to overcoming current UU malaise:  institutionalism, missionalism and evangelism.  Naturally, they overlap.

Institutionalism is dominant.  It says that the way for UUism to grow and thrive is to strengthen the institutions of the faith, especially the congregations.  Strengthening the institution is everything from "growth through better welcoming of the visitor" to "policy governance" to learning how to engage "adaptive change".  It's also changing our congregational culture to be more inclusive and providing better faith formation opportunities.  It means strengthening our congregations where they are, increasing their capacity in some way or another.

There are traditionalist understandings of the institutionalist tendency: The Free Church movement, for example, saw ministerial authority, the centrality of worship, theism and political detachment as keys to institutional strength.  Most UU Christians espouse a form of Institutionalism in which they think that our institutions would grow stronger if they only made a deeper engagement with our Christian heritage.  The more mainstream institutionalism is more about interfaith worship, shared ministry, behavioral covenants and multi-generational worship.  But they are variations on the same theme:  UUism will only grow and thrive if we do what it takes to strengthen the congregation as an institution.

The second trend is Missionalism.  The missionalists (missionaries?) say that our problem is that we are too focused on our institutional health and vitality.  What matters is living out our purposes.  The mainstream missionalists urge us to re-orient all of our institutional decisions around our congregational mission, as soon as we figure it out.

A more radical missionalism says that we need to get out of the churches and into the community in smaller units that combine service, worship and community in smaller and more particular community settings.  Live our faith at the grass roots.

Another form of missionalism is the interest in non-congregational settings for community ministry.  Ministers with marginalized identities look to a growth in a missional UUism as an alternative to the steep pyramid of the Darwinian parish ministry.

These missionalists call our prevailing church culture "churchism" and say that it is dying.  They remind us that the church is not a building and an institution, and the work of the church is not institutional maintenance.  It has become self-focused.  To them, the UU's are even more crass, saying, in effect, "we don't care what you think or believe, as long as your willing to give the church money, take your turn on the shared duties and don't disrupt the community."  Rev. Ron Robinson in Turley, OK is practicing this kind of radical missionalism.

Peter voices many of the critiques of Unitarian Universalism that the missionalists make.  The notion that our present institutions have become self-serving and self-satisfied bodies unable to see beyond their own needs is a missionalist argument.
He writes:  " We have institutionalized narcissism. Here was a person that was not involved in a Unitarian Universalist church, and yet knew something about us. As an outsider, the message he received about what we stand for is: It’s about whatever you want it to be about. It’s all about you."
But Peter ends up not making a missionalist argument, even though he talks about the liberal church finding its mission.
I am skeptical about Unitarian Universalism ever becoming the sort of missional religious movement that some of my colleagues and friends are imagining. A group of like-minded individuals doing community service together with no theology, no discerned sense of vocation, is not a faith community; it’s the Rotary Club.
 This is a line that has deep resonance with many traditional institutionalists, but is more content-rich than they have built.
Inasmuch as Unitarian Universalist communities continue to neglect discernment, theology, discipline, spiritual practice, faith formation, vocation and engagement with our historic testimonies and tradition, we will never be a missional religious movement. 
Peter believes, if I understand him right, that common theological practices are the pre-condition for developing missional congregations.

But I wonder if he is advocating a program of raising the theological strength of our existing congregations (an updated version of the traditional UU Christian institutionalist program) or an outward looking evangelical strategy.

What I argue is this:  

 Our Mission is more important than our Institutions and our Mission is  Evangelism.

By Evangelism, I do not mean spreading Unitarian Universalism, or growing our congregations. Evangelism is not an old-fashioned word for growth strategies.  Our goal is to be evangelical, not sectarian.

Our mission is to spread Liberal Religion.  There are many other forms of Liberal Religion: many of the mainline churches, many varieties of Judaism, most forms of Western Buddhism, and many of the unchurched.  Unitarian Universalism is a particular form of Liberal Religion that has arisen out of liberal Protestantism and moved in the 20th century toward creating open-ended, interfaith worshipping communities.

Evangelism is spreading a message, sharing good news, entering the public square to contest the foundational ideas that shape the social order.

The world is not at a point of postmodern stability -- where all sorts of ideas co-exist and will so indefinitely.  We are in an unstable world in which religious fundamentalism, religious liberalism, and fiendish globalist consumerist anomie  all compete for the minds of every person. It is an ideological, philosophical and theological struggle about how we think about ourselves, each other, the planet we live on and the Universe we live in. There will be winners and losers in this ongoing struggle; the quality of the lives our children and grandchildren will live depend on its outcome.

Our goal is to persuade people of the basic viewpoints of  liberal religion and consolidate them as people who can enact those virtues of liberal religion in their social and personal lives.  These viewpoints and virtues are good news that will make their lives happier and healthier and the world a better place.  Defining those viewpoints and virtues are the work of a preaching life.

Tihs is the external dimension of what the tasks that Peter outlines:
.... discernment, theology, discipline, spiritual practice, faith formation, vocation and engagement with our historic testimonies and tradition.