Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop...

My colleague, the Rev. Cynthia Landrum, has written an essay on the water controversy in Detroit. She grew up in the Detroit area and her parents live there, so she is not an outsider. She now serves the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty, MI. I am happy to post her essay here.

Her essay signals a change in the "Lively Tradition." Cynthia is the first of what I hope will be a group of regular contributors to the blog who will bring additional voices to the discussion here. In addition, I hope to bring more one-time only guest bloggers and essayists to the blog. The blog will continue to stand at the intersection of Unitarian Universalist theology and current events and politics. It will also continue to provide an independent, but friendly, point of view on current UU events and controversies.  I promise to try my hardest to make "The Lively Tradition," above all, lively, an online place worth your time to visit regularly.

Water, Water Everywhere and not a Drop to Drink
Cynthia Landrum

The situation in Detroit where the city has been turning off the tap for residents who haven’t paid their water bill has people quickly falling into familiar camps.  On the one hand, there are those who argue for individual responsibility, saying that water isn’t free and people should pay their bills.  On the other hand, you have those arguing for social welfare, saying that water is a basic human right, and this is harming the most vulnerable among us.  

But for liberal religious people, finding our way between these two poles is by no means easy. 
We are caught often between the poles of individualism and collectivism, between self-reliance and interdependence.  Our principles bring us back and forth between these poles, with the inherent worth and dignity and the right of conscience on one hand, and the interdependent web and the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all on the other hand.  We are trapped between Emersonian “Self-Reliance,” with Ralph Waldo saying, “Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor?” and “your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold,” and James Luther Adams’ smooth stones, telling us “Religious liberalism affirms the moral obligation to direct one's effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community,” and “we deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation.”

Our Unitarian Universalist churches embody this tension, with individuals coming to our institutions, individuals embracing our non-creedal acceptance, but looking for a community of like-minded folk.  (Consistency, after all, is the hobgoblin…)

Back to the water: In Jackson, Michigan, where I live, there’s a common perception that Detroit is “dragging the state down,” and that over here we’re independent of those problems over there, and those people over there should deal with their own problems and suffer the consequences.  

But to look at Detroit in isolation, and these families with their water disconnected in isolation, is to ignore how the larger system has contributed to the situation.  It might be well and good to hold the ideal of self-reliance in an isolated situation, but this is far from an isolated situation.  Our state runs on the engine that is Detroit, and the situation of Detroit can’t be extracted from the relationship of Detroit to its suburbs.  (Even with the water situation – Detroit provides water to much of its suburbs and beyond all the way to Flint and Ann Arbor.)  Each and every individual who moves from Detroit to its suburbs helped create a large city with large infrastructure and a population unable to support it, and a situation where the suburbs increasingly prospered while the city went broke.  Our state was happy enough to take the profits while Detroit prospered, but we’re quick to absolve ourselves from the pain.

In this situation, Emerson can’t really be applied.  There is no self to rely upon – this isn’t an individual problem but a systems problem.  It’s not about “them,” it’s about “us.”  And the first step our liberal theology tells us to do is to stop demonizing the “other” and humanize instead, as "the Lively Tradition" reminds us: 

If you scratch below the surface of the call for individual responsibility in this case, it’s easy to see a level of demonization below it, and that demonization has some ugly, racist roots.  This water issue isn’t really about self-reliance, it’s about “othering” the people of Detroit, about race, and about class.  It’s about making the most basic human need into us-vs.-them.  

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”  The United Nations has said, “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.”  Our UUSC has joined the fight on this side as a long-time advocate for water rights.  

Our state of Michigan has the current slogan “Pure Michigan,” a slogan meant to invoke our water – our Great Lakes and lots of little ones.  But for us to carry that watery slogan at a time when so many are going without water is purely a disgrace.


  1. Jennifer Crawford12:55 PM

    All I can say is that if water isn't free, then we need to make it free. Of course people should pay their bills when they can, but we have created a society in which many can't, and of course, they still need water. When people can't pay their bills, we should take that as evidence that we need to do a better job of structuring the society, not as evidence that we need to punish people by denying them water. Not only is doing that inhumane, but it is a fundamental misunderstanding of how humans function. This is one more way to create toxic stress and then punish people for not functioning well when stressed.

  2. Pure self loathing drivel. Corruption and self dealing are the significant factors in Detroit's condition. Who are you to ascribe motives, racist or otherwise to all who see things differently. Arrogance beyond measure, where does that fit in our seven principles?

  3. Anonymous8:32 PM

    Agreed, Erik.
    If someone merely points out that the things mentioned in the UN declaration aren't free, he/she is apparently demonized (yes, conservatives don't have a monopoly on doing that as "othering."
    Isn't it responsible to "dialogue" about how things can be paid for? A system that makes water free (a la socialism) has some merits at first, but then we could say the same thing about health care (oh wait, we've tackled that already). And gee, food and housing are important, so should all suburbanites pool together for that too? That seems to be where things are going.
    So it's NOT about "othering." Those on our side can have compassion yet also think about the best way to be compassionate while still preserving personal liberty and responsibility.


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