Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fast Food Workers Strike.

Question for Unitarian Universalists:

I don't suppose that any of us were shocked to see a photo of Dana MacLean Greeley, the President of the newly formed UUA, among the many religious leaders at the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, DC.  After all, many religious leaders were there and the UUA had committed itself to support the Civil Rights Movement. 

The March, however, was for "Jobs and Freedom", and it made demands for such things as a minimum wage increase.  

Would it be thought appropriate for the current UUA President to take a public stand on increasing the minimum wage?  Well, of course.  President Morales has, and the UUA has done so in the past.  In fact, many UU's consider one of the essential functions of the UU President to be making high-minded and lofty statements about important things that local congregations cannot get to, because pledge campaigns and teacher recruitment have so seized our attention.

But what about local congregations and individual ministers?  Would it be considered appropriate for the minister in your congregation to make a forceful show of solidarity with the fast food workers striking today for a $15 living wage?  Or, is that a policy matter, unlike Marriage Equality, where UU ministers should not imply that our religion leads us to one side and not the other? 

Or should UU ministers be excused from taking a side on questions like minimum wages and the conditions of fast food workers, because those issues are just too distant from the lives of our congregants? 

Liberal Religion should be on the side of the poor.  Liberal Religion should be on the side of the workers.  Liberal Religion should be on the side of the working poor.  Liberal Religion should be on the side of the fast food workers and all the other low-wage, high-turnover, no benefits, multiple-part time job workers.  

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Limits of Our Thinking

The limits of our thinking.

Most of the people I know from church don't say that they eat at fast food restaurants very often.  Most of the people I know from the Unitarian Universalist movement do not go to Walmart very often.  

So when fast food workers and Walmart employees conduct their "strikes", most of the people I know watch from a distance, as though they have no connection to it.

After all, they are neither fast food workers nor customers of fast food establishments.It makes a certain kind of sense.  

That this thought seems so self-evident is really a self-imposed limit on our thinking.

We define ourselves as consumers, and that gives us two choices: we either consume, or we boycott.  But what about the things that we don't consume?  Not consuming is not the same as boycotting. 

I am not boycotting women's high-heeled shoes. I just don't wear them, or buy them. But can I be unconcerned about them?  Were I to learn that the high heeled shoe factory in town ran on the labor of enslaved orphans chained to their machines 18 hours a day, could I say it wasn't my problem?

Faced with that situation, I would have to think of myself in a larger context than "consumer."  I would have to think of myself in an even larger context than "orphan" or "shoe-worker", since I am neither of those. 

Why would I act? Because I feel human solidarity with others. 

Why do I post about fast food workers and Walmart employees and the necessity of raising the minimum wage?  Why do I think that these issues should be as important to UU congregations as climate change and marriage equality?  

Because these folks are claiming and building their power and agency in a situation which assumes that they are replaceable and manipulable objects.  Giant and extremely profitable corporations are extracting great wealth from their poorly compensated work.  The Waltons are the richest family in the country and their vast wealth depends on thousands of people living lives of near poverty. 

Claiming one's power, thinking for one's self, creating strength by building connections with others: these are hallmark gestures of liberal religion. That religious liberals will honor the person who walks out of their church because they can no longer believe the Nicene creed, but doesn't honor the person who walks out of a fast food kitchen to get a living wage -- well, that is the limits of our thinking.  

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Demons Among Us?

The Demons We Are Warned Against.

Demons walk among us.  They even hide among us.  They disguise themselves at times as friendly, or pitiful, creatures to ensnare us.  It takes constant vigilance to detect them and stern resolve not to fall for their blandishments. 

That is the meta-message of conservatives.  

Foremost among the demons to be feared is the black male criminal, essentially indistinguishable from any man of color from adolescence through elderly dotage.  

There are others, though.  The Queer. The Bitch.  The Lazy Poor.  The Intellectual.  The Irresponsible Young.  The Bureaucrat.  The Muslim. The Atheist.  The Prisoner.  The Illegal Immigrant.

The conservatives thinks of these as demons, because they have no purpose other than to cause destruction and damage to the social fabric.  There is no compromise to be made with them, because they are not just people with a different set of interests and needs.  Compromise with them is a compromise with evil, and a foolish mistake.  Have you lost your mind? 

The purpose of conservative discourse is to convince us that these demons are real and among us.  

But if the purpose of conservative discourse is to demonize, the purpose of liberal discourse is to humanize. 

The work of public ministry for liberal religion is to humanize our culture.  It is an infinite demand revealed to us by our history and a cause worthy of our lives' dedication. 

The remarkable turn of public opinion about marriage equality over the last 5 years shows the possibility.  That is the nation in motion, changing before our eyes, faster than we can imagine. We have a great opportunity now.  I believe that liberal religion can have the social impact on the nation in the near future that the evangelicals had in the 80's and 90's.

Humanizing the culture takes place on many levels.  

It is fighting the policies that flow from demonization: mass incarceration, punitive regulation of women's reproductive lives, cruel deprivations of the poor, foreign wars.  

It is challenging demonizations in daily life: the exclusions and aggressions. 

It is challenging demonization in our personal lives and in the terrain of our own thoughts.  It is building institutions for worship that inspire.


Rituals of Intention

Rites of Passage

The operative word that gets used in describing rites of passage that we UU ministers do is often "celebration."  A baby blessing is a 'celebration' of a new life; the wedding is a 'celebration' of a marriage; a memorial service is the 'celebration' of the life of the deceased. 

I have to admit that I find the word "celebration" to be insubstantial when talking about liturgy; it seems one-dimensional.

I have been thinking lately about framing these liturgical events as a community honoring the intentions of people at some of the transitional moments of life.  

I started thinking about the intentions of the wedding couple while preparing weddings.  What are we all (the community -- the congregation) doing here at this ceremony.  It occurred to me that we were really witnessing and honoring the intentions of the couple to be faithful partners to each other for life.  We gather to witness the vows and promises that they make to each other.  Yes, we are celebrating their love, but many people are in love.   We are honoring their intentions. 

Intentions became the key for unlocking deeper meaning in the baby blessing.  Religious liberals have had trouble with baby blessings (just witness the number of names that we use to describe the ritual: baptism, dedication, christening, baby blessing.  

I have an liturgical element in both the weddings that I perform and the baby blessings I do.  I learned this from Rev. Barbara Merritt.  I ask the couple at a wedding, and the parents and godparents at a baby blessing, to prepare promises for the occasion in their own words.  Each participant.  The wedding couple tells them each other.  The parents tell them to the baby.  

Hearing all these promises over the years made me aware that people were bringing their best intentions to the moment: to be faithful and patient with each other, to be loving and generous parents to their children. 

These intentions are deep and solemn work.  They are resolutions against time and events and the uncertainty of life.  To promise to love one's child unconditionally is an intention that may be impossible to fulfill.  Fidelity in marriage have proven over time to be only a possibility.  The phrase  "til death do us part" foreshadows unimaginable grief at a time of great joy.  It is a promise not made lightly. 

Now, I am thinking about memorial services, and I think that memorial services are also promises and intentions made against eternity.  The community gathers to make a collective pledge to never forget the one who died, and to 'be there' for those who mourn.  I am wondering whether some ritual element of intentions could be worked into a memorial service.
When I start thinking about rites of passage as collective rituals honoring intentions, more rituals suggest themselves to me.  The divorce ritual, which always seemed to be grotesque when thought of with the word "celebration" is better framed as a ritual of intention.  The divorcing couple are bringing their intentions for a new and healthier post-marriage relationship, and the community is their witnesses.  

Thursday, August 08, 2013

In Defense of Partisan Media

I really appreciate MSNBC, and because of that, I have come to appreciate the role of Fox News. 

I understand that MSNBC is both independent and partisan; it's not the same as the emails I get from the Democratic National Committee, or Organizing for America.  But it does represent the progressive coalition in the United States.  It has a point of view on current events and it presents it.  
It informs me of what is going on, but more importantly, it equips me to be a progressive activist myself.  

Plus, it puts more journalists and activists of color on my tv to offer their analysis of events than all of the rest of the media combined.  

I now get what Fox News (which was talk radio with faces) did for the conservatives.  It equipped their activists with a fully detailed narrative about national events.  Their activists could then set about persuading their friends and families.

A fully functioning democracy includes an informed and activated public.  In the old model, it was assumed that eventually everybody would read news sources which were objective and non-partisan, and then take positions on issues based on their deep reflection, and then, and only then, ally themselves with political leaders that represented their opinions.   All of which happened regularly under the two suns of the planet Zoomar.   

It would be like reading the sport pages when you don't have a team that you are following.  Maybe a tiny handful of people in the baseball business aren't fans and want really objective baseball news.  
No, a person becomes an active citizen by being mobilized, not be being persuaded. 

And partisan media is one way they are mobilized.  Good.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Religion is Media with a Terrible Business Model

Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post has set off a flurry of discussions about the media and its various business models.  So, I started thinking....

Religion has always been, at heart, a media operation.  It is a social organization to spread certain information and create a particular worldview a group of followers.  "Teach them (all the nations) to obey everything that I have told to you," said Jesus.  

The ancient Hebrews put their writings in the Temple where the priests could read it, refer to it, and presumedly teach it.  It was the best way they knew to preserve and spread the information.

Now, information is everywhere and it's free.  Nobody wants to pay a fifty cents for a daily newspaper.  The teachings of all religions are freely available.

At one point the social organization of the church was the means of disseminating the information.  The gathered community engaged in a ritual which communicated the teaching; even the architecture of the building communicated the teachings of the religion.  Now, gathering of the community is for the sake of the community itself.  And the people wonder if it's not all just a social club.

Say you had a really big, earthshaking idea, a new way of looking at everything.  How would you spread that information?  How would you evangelize your good news?

OK, first I would gather a few people together, form an organization, write some by-laws, build the most magnificent building we could afford, hire someone to teach my teachings once a week to the people who already accept it, in the hopes that they will tell their friends and neighbors when they are not too busy going to meetings to figure out how to keep the pigeons from pooping on the sidewalk on Sunday morning before everybody gets to the once a week explanation of the teachings, which, by the way, are free.

Buzz, wrong answer!

That's a terrible business model.  Way too much capital expenditure for the amount of information shared.  Your lead sales staff doesn't actually sell, but gives pep talks to the rest of the sales staff.   Your customer base is stagnant and pays an awful lot of money for what they get.  Your customers/distributors are more intent on socializing with each other than reaching any new recruits.  And when they finally reach a potential new recruit, they can get the same info for free, any time they want.  So, unless they happen to like the socializing, they are not interested.  

It's media.  Moses was the first Stone Tablet Media Mogul.  Jesus invented multi-level marketing and viral distribution, although that effort got shut down and crammed into a more conventional top-down information monopoly.  The early Protestants were book salesmen and the Radical Reformation took it one step further and spread the info in the Book through autonomous book clubs.  If I was really cynical and smart-alecky, I would say the UUism is a collection of book clubs which can never decide what book to read but still gather for the cookies, coffee and conversation.

Maybe that works, but it is a terrible business model, and it is hiding the light under a bushel basket.

Institutes of Interdependence

Barbara Ehrenreich observes that in America, there are two "middle-classes".  One is a "Business" middle-class who work in the for-profit sector, from small business to corporations to the financial industry.  The other is the "Professional Intellectual" middle-class, whose good incomes and good jobs are dependent on their education.

The former is more an inherited status; the latter is more fluid.  There is room for upward mobility, as people go to college and get more professional degrees.

One difference between the two varieties of middle-class is institutional loyalty.  You get ahead in the business middle-class by fitting in and being loyal -- a team player.  You get ahead in the intellectual middle-class by being different.

This matters in UU churches and congregations which are religious hangouts for the intellectual middle class.

For a long time, the plurality of UU's were people who had already showed their lack of loyalty to another faith tradition.  They knew how to leave churches.  Now, we get more unchurched in; people who never learned how to be in a religious community.

No wonder institutional loyalty is so thin and brittle.  Beneath the thin candy coating of our incessant cheerleading, even the most rah-rah UU's readily drop into cynical discourse at what's wrong with us.  It turns out that most of us are in favor of UUism everywhere in the world, except where it is.

Each of us, me included, intends to make our greatest contribution to UUism by changing it from what it is to what it should be.  Signs of our intellectual middle-class collective character.

Intellectual and educational attainment was a path into the middle class, especially through the post WWII era until the end of the 20th century.  College and University education spread throughout the population.  Notice, though, how many older UU's tie their story of becoming UU with their educational life.  Many of our older UU's equate UUism with being smart, and place intellectual stimulation at the top of their church priorities.  I get the feeling that education, upward mobility, personal reinvention and becoming a UU are all related for many people.

Digging deeper, the whole process is journey toward self-possession and self-differentiation.  Getting educated is a way to master thinking for yourself, and thinking for yourself was part of a process of becoming emotionally independent of your past.  Self-differentiation is freedom in today's context.

In the past, joining a UU congregation was one of the rites of passage that marked a successful climb up the educational ladder into the middle class.

But in the future, self-differentiation (self-determination and freedom) ought not be dependent on economic advancement, but a process that is available to everyone, especially those who have been marginalized.

We need to start thinking of UU congregations as self-determination centers, schools of self-differentiation, interdependence academies, a place where we learn to be both connected and ourselves.  We need not be alike to love alike.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Class is a Consciousness, not a Category

Class is not about income.

Class is not about education.

Class is not about manners or gentility.

A class is a group of people who have had shared a similar life experience in economic life, enough so that it has shaped their worldview.  Classes are shaped by history, and the consciousness that they create persist through generations, even though the formative experiences may have faded, or have been transformed by memory.

Remember the Republican convention of 2012.  Who can forget such good times?  Speaker after speaker describes the story of their family over generations.  The usual elements were the ancestor who came from Europe with nothing, but a strong back and skilled hands, and how he worked hard, and made enough money to rise up the ladder, and then the war, and a more education and all culminating in me, a greasy lawyer/politician sleazeball who has turned myself into a corporate spokesmodel for the Koch brothers.  Yay America!

That story is the story of a class, and an expression of a particular kind of class consciousness.  It is the life story of lots and lots of early 20th century European immigrants, many of whom did rise into more prosperity and out of the factories with the help of government supported education.  Many turned out better people than Rick Santorum.  In fact, a small number of them, got the education bug, and became UU's, in the perpetual process of re-invention.

A particular consciousness that arises out of that particular class experience: the possibility of material success, the importance of gratification deferred unto the next generation, the value of education.

It's a different consciousness than the story I heard told by a Detroit preacher/musician.  His people came up from Mississippi, came to Detroit, the "promised land of the working man" and worked in the auto plants, and then the plants left and now he pastors a small church, and plays blues and gospels in folk music venues in Ann Arbor.  I won't try to characterize how he understands the way the world works, except to say that it must be very different than Rick Santorum's.

Don't look at your tax return, or your diploma, or your present lifestyle to understand your class and class consciousness.

Look at your grandparents, first of all.  What was the story of their life, their experience in the world?  How did they survive?   Your parents observed their parent's lives, and passed down to you what lessons they drew from those lives.  And when you heard that history and lessons, you took them in as God's honest truth -- an accurate description of the way the world works, and what you must do to survive.  You've been testing those propositions ever since, and drawing your own conclusions.

My grandparents were born in isolated German Anabaptist communities.  Through seminary education, and assimilation into the mainstream, and urbanization, and the joining of the German Baptists into the American Baptists, they became successful, even prominent Baptist ministers.  However, my parents each saw the underside of that life, but my father tried and failed at that profession.  Along the way, he furthered that assimilation trajectory by becoming a Unitarian (1947).  He then worked in a steel mill until that went the way of heavy industry in the US.

Of course, I carry this story with me.  I carry a lot the attitudes of the intellectual meritocracy (which is what ministry really is), but I also know how fragile that can be. Growing up in Youngstown also teaches a powerful lesson in how much one's life is dependent on things outside of one's control.  (Which is why I resonate with NOLA and Detroit.)   But enough about me....

You want to start to deal with class in church?  Start with where you are, and where others are.  Get off these blanket and moralistic stereotypes.  Once you know your own story, you will start to appreciate the differences between the people inside the church and many of those outside, especially those who live the lives of the working poor.

I am particularly interested in hearing how joining, or staying in, a UU church fits into the multi-generational story of your family.  In what way was it a break with the story -- trying to find a new way -- and in what ways was it a continuation of some of themes of that story?   Leave your story in the comments.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Why the word "classism" gives me the creeps.

I know that I used the word "classism" in the title of a recent post.  I inadvertently left out the ironic quotation marks around it.  So sorry.  The word gives me the creeps because I hear the word used as though "classism" is another form of prejudice and oppression -- another addition to the long list of "isms" that starts with racism and ends, for now, with something like "lookism".   Along the way, there are few "-phobias" thrown in for variety, like "homo-", "trans-" and "fat-"  And if anyone suggests substituting the word "workerphobia" for "classism", I will lose my lunch.

Somehow including "class" in this list of traits that people use to oppress others strikes me as trivializing it.

I get the idea that people think that UU churches need some sort of 'welcoming congregation' program to make themselves less classist.

And I also get the idea that people view "classism" as somehow a parallel problem to "racism."  Focusing on "classism" then becomes the "more progressive" alternative since it includes the working class and poor whites in our concerns.

When we try to understand the interplay of race and class, we are dealing with the most vexatious problem in US History.  We are dealing with the most important strategic question for all efforts at fundamental change in the country.  I would even argue that eventually all progressive movements in the USA have foundered because they could not get this relationship sorted out.

The problem is objective:  There are multiple working classes in the United States of different races.  (Sometimes you hear well-meaning liberals say that "the working class was divided by the ruling class along racial lines" -- it was never one working class ever.)  Their interests dovetail and differ and often, compete.  And this is true whether you are talking about service workers, or factory workers, or technical workers, or academics.

It creeps me out to think that UU congregations think that they can make some institutional adjustments to the ways that they do things and that will reduce this thing "classism" in our institutions.  All to be more inclusive, and to make our little communities more beloved.

When I say that we should fight classism, I am being ironic.

I really mean to say:  we should be more class conscious, more self-aware of our personal and institutional roles in the functioning of the economy, which is based on exploitation.

I also really mean to say:  we should be more committed to taking up the issues of the most exploited workers who are fighting for a better life: the undocumented, the fast food workers, the retail workers, the hotel workers, minimum wage workers, the uninsured, the people faced with the loss of food stamps, the Detroit pensioners.