Simplicity and Belonging

Simplicity, part 3

Simplicity Approach #3: Self-provisioning. Be a Do-It-Yourselfer. Have a garden that provides some of your food. Do your canning. Eat out less. Sew and knit – make your own clothes. Cut your own hair. Make your own bread. Hang clothes on a line instead of using the dryer. If you need a bookshelf, try making one (if the ones available at thrift shops -- often cheaper than the supplies for making your own -- are not the right size, shape, or style). This approach to simplicity is a helpful support for number two – reducing consumption. The more you make for yourself, the less you have to buy.

On the other hand, setting out to do more self-provisioning might increase your stress. If you take on Do-It-Yourself projects without making changes in number one – de-stressing and slowing down – then you’d only be adding more stress. More things to do! Now you’ve got to get that report out by Tuesday, get the kids to umpteen practices, games, rehearsals, and lessons, get the meals all prepared AND grow a garden, can the produce, hang the laundry out, bake bread, and sew yourself a new outfit – nothing too fancy!

Yet for many people, self-provisioning is a crucial part of life that feels simple, elegant, under control. Time spent knitting, or in the garden, or kneading dough can be the most relaxing, de-stressing part of the day. It goes to the issue Elgin called human scale: we see the effects of our labor because it’s right there in that garden in the back yard, those preserves in the freezer, or those clothes in the closet.

Self-provisioning is work that feels real. It's an antidote to the alienated labor that many feel in our jobs. Karl Marx was wrong about a lot of things, but when he talked about alienation of labor, I think he was on to something. He described workers alienated from the product of their labor, without a holistic connection to the production process and the use -- the human meaning -- of the product. It's dehumanizing to be a mechanistic middle part of some process both the source and destination of which is invisible. Marx called it estrangement from one's humanity.

Can you slow down and pare back on other aspects of a hectic life enough to create the time for the simple enjoyment of hands-on tasks that directly create a tangible usable product? Our souls need to see where and how our work matters, aside from the paycheck. Humans need visceral connection to making concrete and good things. Aside from reducing consumption, self-provisioning addresses the spiritual problem of alienation from our own labor and reconnects us with the humanizing satisfactions of work that's meaningful to ourselves, our families, our community.

Simplicity Approach #4: De-cluttering. All this stuff we get not only depletes the Earth to make it, but it clutters up our own life. Would neater and more spare surroundings at home and at work feel good? Of course, you can also clutter up the place with things you made yourself, so don’t go overboard with the self-provisioning. In fact, don’t go overboard with anything – that’s the ultimate lesson of simplicity.

Simplicity Approach #5: Paring away distractions. What distracts you from being present to life, from focusing on what’s most important? Our smart phones are a major distraction. The Amish are very good at thinking about technological conveniences and noticing exactly what it is that is made more convenient. If the gizmo is making it more convenient for you to be disconnected from your family, from your community, from the Earth, from what your best self really cares about, that’s not the convenience you want.

Stress, consumption, work that feels unmeaningful or alienated, clutter, and distraction. Which of those five problems apply to you – maybe just a little bit? As a first step -- before even thinking about which strategies you might try for tacking any of these, take 30 seconds to tell someone else which ones are issues for you: Stress? Consumption? Alienated work? Clutter? Distraction? And if none of those are issues for you, that’s wonderful. In that case, take half a minute to articulate that to someone. Either way, find another person and tell them.

And then ask them to tell you which one of these five is, for them, the biggest problem: stress, consumption, alienated work, clutter, or distraction.

In this month’s issue of On the Journey is a poem by Peter Gizzi called, “Lines Depicting Simple Happiness.” It’s a love poem. One of the lines says:
“With you nothing is simple, yet nothing is simpler.”
I was struck by that line. Relationships are complex – usually even more complicated than my relationship with simplicity. “With you nothing is simple,” says the poet to his beloved. And then adds, “yet nothing is simpler.”

I have been pondering this. How does the experience of simplicity emerge from the complexity of a relationship?

In my experience, it feels simple when we belong. When we belong, then we know who we are, and what is ours to do, and that it will matter, then it all feels simple. It's when we don’t belong, when we are out of place, that we get confused and feel overrun. Who are we? What are we supposed to be doing? What does it matter? It can all seem overwhelmingly complicated. But when we belong, we know our place and what to do. There’s no confusion. It’s simple.

All of the issues I mentioned: stress, consumption, alienated work, clutter, and distraction – contribute to the sense of not belonging in this world. The path of simplicity, then, is a path of belonging.

May 2019 for you be a path toward ever-clearer belonging. Then you, too, may have that feeling that, though nothing is simple, nothing could be simpler.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Simplicity"
See also Part 1: Owning and Being Owned
Part 2: Complexity is Good. So is Simplicity.


Complexity is Good. So is Simplicity.

Simplicity, part 2

Since what we own also owns us, some care in selecting what to buy and own is warranted. Some helpful questions:
  • Does what I own or buy promote activity, self-reliance, and involvement, or does it induce passivity and dependence?
  • Do I buy and own things that serve no real need?
  • How tied am I to installment payments, credit card debt, product maintenance and repair costs, and the expectations of others?
  • What impact does my purchasing have on other people and on the earth?
  • Would the beauty and joy of living be greater if I had less, consumed less, and my life was based more on being and becoming and less on having?
Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity also looked at what he called human scale. Have our living and working environments and supportive institutions reached enormous scale and complexity? Can they be decentralized into more comprehensible and manageable entities? People need to know what they have contributed and need to have a sense of shared rewards and responsibility. That’s not possible when we are tiny cogs in an incomprehensibly vast and complex system.

Of course, Elgin didn’t invent the ethic of simplicity. Before him, Henry David Thoreau extolled living simply. He wrote:
"I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all encumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run. . . . Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify."
At about the same time, our Unitarian forebear William Henry Channing wrote:
“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, to all bravely await occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual unbidden and unconscious grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.”
A number of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, particularly in the school called the Stoics understood that a good life must curb excessive desire – whether for wealth, or just more “stuff.” Yes, excess of consumer products was an issue even in ancient times. Stoics wore simple clothes, ate plain food, slept on a simple straw mat. They sought in this way to develop equanimity in the face of the vicissitudes of fate. As had the Buddha in India not much earlier, Stoics recognized that attachment causes suffering, so they, too, sought to cultivate the simplicity of a nonattached way of life.

On the other hand, we like complexity. Complex things have a lot going on -- and that makes them interesting. Complexity is powerful and adaptive. We don’t want to de-evolve back to being single-celled organisms. Our complexity gives us adaptability, and creativity. The beautiful words poets require complex minds and souls. Here are a few lines from the Spanish poet Lorca:
“This weeping of blood that adorns
an unplucked lyre, the lusty torch,
this weight of the sea that pounds,
this scorpion that dwells in my breast
are all a garland of love, a sickbed
where I lie awake dreaming you are here
among the ruins of my downcast heart.
And though I try hard to be careful
your heart gives me a vale with hemlock spread
and the passion of bitterly knowing all.”
Those are not words that could come from a simpleton – nor could we be moved by them without a lot very complex stuff going on in our neurons.

And yet a life of simplicity – one that is more intentional, that is easier on the Earth and more joyous for ourselves – can seem very attractive. It will seem particularly attractive during times of stress. And that brings us to:

Simplicity Approach #1: Reduce stress. Life can be hectic, frenetic. Stress levels are high. The American Institute of Stress reports that
“Numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades.”
Do we have to work so much? Can we slow down, enjoy family and friends and our faith community more? That’s one approach to simplicity: relaxing, taking it easy. Not just on occasional vacations, but as a way of life. Don’t produce so much.

Simplicity Approach #2: Reduce consumption. This approach focuses particularly on the environment -- though accumulations of stuff can also contribute to stress. The more we spend, the more we are encouraging exploitation of labor, depletion of resources, pollution, and greenhouse gases causing climate change. Climate change is already despoiling the beauty of our planet and bringing new hardships to some areas. Much more catastrophic effects are not far away. Can we step lightly, reduce our footprint – live simply that others may simply live?

These first two approaches fit well together: make less money and spend less money. If we cut back our consumption, we can afford to cut back on working. The story is told of the two ancient Greek philosophers, Diogenes and Aristippus. Diogenes lived in poverty, while Aristippus, having secured a position at court by flattering the king, lived a life of wealth. One day Aristippus stopped by to visit Diogenes, who was eating his dinner of bread and lentils. Aristippus said, “If you would learn to be subservient to the king, you wouldn’t have to live on lentils.” Diogenes replied, “If you would learn to live on lentils, you wouldn’t have to be subservient to the king.”

I think we all need to serve something, but maybe the king you’ve been serving doesn’t represent the life you really want. Maybe you’re serving a kingdom that’s wrecking the environment, and maybe the lifestyle you are thus afforded is too. “Live content with small means” as William H. Channing said, and you may feel happier and more free as well as going easier on the Earth.

NEXT: Simplicity Approaches 3, 4, and 5.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Simplicity"
See also
Part 1: Owning and Being Owned
Part 3: Simplicity and Belonging


Owning and Being Owned

Simplicity, part 1

The Amish Ordnung – their set of rules – prohibits or suing in a court of law or running for political office, though it generally allows voting. Public electricity is prohibited, though most groups generate their own from diesel generators or batteries – or, increasingly, solar panels -- for limited purposes that include home lighting and running the motorized washing machine, which almost all Amish allow.

Automobiles and radio and TV are prohibited, and the Ordnung requires a particular style of clothing, hairstyle, and carriage design. Most Amish allow chainsaws, pneumatic tools, and running water for the bathtub and inside flush toilets – though 30 percent of the Amish population live in church districts that forbid these. Half of the Amish live under an Ordnung that prohibits pickup hay-balers and half live under one that allows them. Each church district, comprising 20-40 families, has authority to modify its own Ordnung as it sees fit. Any church district that grows to more than 40 families splits into two; thus, as the Amish population has grown -- doubling approximately every 20 years since 1901, and exceeding 330,000 in 2018 -- so has the number of Ordnung. Making a change, though, requires unanimity of the membership, so, by design, change is slow.

In 1900, as the telephone was spreading across America, many Amish also installed phones in their homes. Within 10 years – by about 1910 – the Ordnung of most Amish church districts had banned telephones from their homes. Home telephones were determined to be too much convenience, to promote more connection to the outside world than was healthy, and, within the community, to promote gossip. Home telephones, as parents of teenagers have been noticing since long before there were cell phones, reduces shared family time, which the Amish are very intentional about preserving. Also, Amish maintain their Ordnung through the practice of church leaders paying a visit to urge a wayward church member to “put away” their jet ski, or whatever forbidden technology has been noticed. Home telephones would weaken the power of these visits. The Amish noticed that, even if church leaders always came by in person for such a visit, an in-person visit in a context where phoning each other is common takes on a different meaning from an in-person visit in a context where such visits are the only ways, other than church, that neighbors are in touch with each other.

I’m impressed by how carefully Amish communities think through these issues. We Englishers – the Amish term for nonAmish of any ethnicity – will often mention “unintended consequences” of some action or technology. The Amish show us that just because consequences may not have been intended doesn’t mean they were unforeseeable, if we had carefully and collectively slowed down to think through the implications.

For instance, on the telephone issue, the Amish saw that they needed telephones to conduct business. They also saw pro-family aspects of telephones, such as contact with relatives in other settlements. So Amish places of businesses often have a phone – just not in their home. And they might have a cell phone, but keep it in the barn. Or a church district will construct a phone shanty at the end of a lane where there may be several land-line telephones, each shared by several families. Every day or two somebody from the family strolls out to the phone shanty to check messages and return phone calls. What a contrast that is to the way I live! Even my most deliberated purchases are impulsive by Amish standards.

* * *

Our theme of the month for January is simplicity. My relationship with simplicity is complicated. Facebook gives you eleven options for indicating your relationship status: you can be single, in a relationship, engaged, married, separated, divorced, widowed, in a civil union, in a domestic partnership, in an open relationship, or it’s complicated. “It’s complicated” is a semi-official category of relationship. That's the relationship I have with simplicity.

Once upon a time, simplicity and I were “in a relationship.” I was a fan of Duane Elgin’s 1981 book, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple Inwardly Rich. Elgin described a way of life that
“embraces frugality of consumption, a strong sense of environmental urgency, a desire to return to living and working environments which are of a more human scale, and an intention to realize our higher human potential — both psychological and spiritual — in community with others.”
From Elgin I learned that one ought to be be careful about what one buys and owns. Everything you own also owns you.

Remember how when you were a kid you wanted a pony? Your parents probably said, “That’s a big responsibility.” But you didn’t care. (If you had someone in your life who you believed had the means to produce a pony, and were caring enough to give you guidance about responsibility, then you also knew you had someone who could bail you out if you turned out not to always be 100% up to the responsibilities.) But as you got older, and started to have and take more responsibility, you developed interests that you weren’t willing to give up to spend hours a day feeding, and grooming, and exercising a horse and cleaning and maintaining its stable. You realized all the things you’d be giving up – that the horse owns you as much as you own the horse. OR, maybe you grew up and DID get a horse, because you loved them so much you were happy to be owned the caretaking demands.

But what’s true for horse ownership also applies to everything we buy and own. Do I own my cell phone or does it own me? Well, both. For most of us, life is a matter of
  • owning and being owned by a cell phone;
  • owning and being owned by a car;
  • owning and being owned by a house;
  • owning and being owned by a set of living room furniture;
  • owning and being owned by all the equipment in your kitchen;
  • owning and being owned by each major and minor appliance in your house.
Do you want a life of being owned by all that? Maybe the answer is yes, but it’s a question to investigate and explore – something to be intentional about instead of finding ourselves unwittingly arriving, step by step, at a life you wouldn’t have chosen all at once.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Simplicity"
See next part 2: Complexity is Good. So is Simplicity.
Part 3: Simplicity and Belonging


Prophetic Call to Neighborliness

Reality Amid Ideology, part 3

The prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, et al – spoke out against the injustices of the ruling elite.
“The vocation of the prophets, in the face of enthralling ideology, is to penetrate and expose that ideology by appeal to the reality of the lived world, a reality that steadfastly refused to conform to the claims of that ideology” (Brueggemann)
The prophets called out the urban elite for their “arrogance, pride, and self-indulgence”; for imagining themselves “the center of the universe and not accountable" to anyone for anything; for failing “to regard the weak, poor, and vulnerable as legitimate members of the community.” The prophets, to the great annoyance of the ruling class, pointed out that:
“The elite have manipulated the markets, paid low wages, foreclosed on homes, and managed the economy in their interest to the detriment of others.”
Sound familiar?

The elite have, in short, said the prophets, failed at both of the two central commandments: love God, and love neighbor. In making their critique, the prophets spoke poetry. Their imagery shocks and dismays in the interest of jolting the people back to reality. Hosea imagines Israel as
  • a silly dove that flits about,
  • a pancake half baked,
  • adulterers hot as a heated oven,
  • a wild ass wandering about,
  • a stone sinking in water.
Jeremiah imagines the elite as
  • depending on broken cisterns,
  • vines with degenerate fruit,
  • a camel in heat,
  • a bride who forgets her jewelry,
  • a prostitute on a street corner,
  • a desperate mother dying in labor,
  • the only bird that doesn’t know when to migrate,
  • poor people without a doctor,
  • a pile of corpses.
The prophets spoke of YHWH as
  • a whirlwind,
  • a lion,
  • a winnowing fork.
The kaleidoscope of images shows us our lives in many ways, for the more we “see our lives in many ways,” the more likely we are to “discover that the single way of chosenness is not a reliable certitude.”

Of course, “the ideologues thought that the prophets were crazy and traitors.” But the prophets’ imagination offered the only hope of popping the bubble of ideological deception.

Then in 587 BCE, the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, burned down the temple, and deported much of the population to slavery in Babylon. The deep crisis of this defeat and 70 years of Babylonian captivity -- until the Persian King Cyrus, having defeated Babylon, permitted the Judeans to return to Judah -- produced critical rethinking who they were and their relationship to YHWH, the personified representation of their covenantal promise to live by the values of their laws: hospitality, compassion, fairness.

It was during and after the Babylonian Captivity that the Torah, as we have it, was assembled, from sources some of which were much older. The deep reflection instigated by the Captivity was also the impetus for preserving and codifying the other books of the Tanakh (which consists of the same books as the Protestant Old Testament, in a somewhat different order).

Running through American ideology is a similar exceptionalism – a sense of being God’s chosen people. It goes back to John Winthrop, the Puritan governor in 17th century New England who told his fellow Puritans they were creating “a city set upon a hill.”

Abraham Lincoln, in an 1861 address to the New Jersey senate, brilliantly, in one brief phrase, both evoked and stepped back from America’s self-understanding as chosen people. Lincoln called us God’s “almost chosen people.” He said:
“I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people.”
That word “almost” opened critical distance between, on the on hand, true justice and righteousness and, on the other hand, the reality of the ways we fall short of realizing them. But by the time we get to Teddy Roosevelt, that “almost” was gone -- the gap of critical distance closed again. Roosevelt’s imperialism acquired the Philippines and reached into Korea, Japan, and China, driven by a sense of uniquely American Manifest Destiny, and the racist conviction that Asian peoples were inferior to what Roosevelt called our Anglo-Saxon, our Teutonic – he even sometimes said Aryan -- civilization.

The exceptionalist strand in US ideology has carried through. Thus, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on the Today Show in 1998:
“If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are an indispensable nation.”
A people that imagines itself God’s chosen is at risk of becoming arrogant. Exceptionalism fuels expansionism, racism, and violence. As Brueggemann said:
“The disregard of both God and neighbor permits a predatory society to seem normal and acceptable.”
When Brueggemann urges us not to disregard God, it might be helpful for us Unitarians to remember that God means covenant -- the covenantal relationship a people may hold to each other and to the values that guide their life together. God, as Solomon declared and the Israelites understood, abides in that dark inner chamber, the holiest of holies -- and what abides there is the covenant: the ark that holds the tablets that Moses brought down from the mountain. God is the covenant – a covenant to live by the principles and values handed down and constituting the historical identity of the people.

We Unitarians, too, have a covenant with something that is more powerful than you or I, something mysterious that calls us to our better selves, something that we all sometimes stray from, but that ever-beckons us back to a truer path -- something that defines us as a people. We have a covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person – every being, I’d say. We have a covenant to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. The interdependence of existence, and inherent worth and dignity, are powerful. There is a quality of mystery and awe there – how could this be, this total interdependence, this inalienability from concern and respect? We sometimes fall away from our covenantal promise – and we do so in the same way the Ancient Israelites did. We fail to care for the vulnerable.

Love of God and love of neighbor are the same thing. Jesus was explicit on that point, and before him, Jeremiah said it. They are the same thing – love of God and care for the vulnerable are synonyms -- but it’s helpful to say it both ways. It's helpful to remember that that care, kindness, and compassion are, for us, rooted, after all, in a promise to uphold everyone’s worth and dignity because, mysteriously, it’s inherent – and a promise to respect the web of existence because, mysteriously, we’re an interdependent part of it.

The call to neighborliness is the promise we have made to mystery.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Reality Amid Ideology"
See also
Part 1: Some Brueggemann and Some Poems
Part 2: Imagination Shortage


Imagination Shortage

Reality Amid Ideology, part 2

Our country is suffering from a lack of imagination. We have among us the imaginations of the prophetic poets, a small sampling of which was included in part 1 (HERE) -- but it takes imagination to hear, not just to speak imaginatively. As a whole, not enough of us have even enough imagination to hear these voices of our prophetic poets. To paraphrase Cool-Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure of imagination.”

Imagination is evident in poets, artists, novelists, filmmakers, musicians. Imagination also includes what Edmund Burke called “the moral imagination.” It’s the capacity to imagine where there is wrong and harm when it isn’t happening to you – and the capacity to imagine that it can be addressed – that the status quo does not have to be forever. Those with developed moral imagination don’t have to go to Yemen and be among the starving children to know, and feel, the pain, the suffering, the horror. Words, pictures, and our imaginative capacity take us there.

It was Percy Shelley who said,
“The imagination is the great instrument of moral good, and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. . . . Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
It was John Dewey who agreed, saying:
“Imagination is the chief instrument of the good....A person’s ideas and treatment of his fellows are dependent upon his power to put himself imaginatively in their place. But the primacy of the imagination extends far beyond the scope of direct personal relationships. The ideal factors in every moral outlook and human loyalty are imaginative. Hence it is that art is more moral than moralities. For moralities either are, or tend to become, consecrations of the status quo, reflections of custom, reinforcements of the established order. The moral prophets of humanity have always been poets even though they spoke in free verse or by parable.”
It was Northrup Frye who said:
“The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.”
This work is aided by the imaginative voices of our poets, but it is up to all the people to fashion a collective vision, inspired by their poets and informed by their fact-finders. This, too, is imaginative work. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said,
"Imagination is not a talent of some people, but is the health of every person."
The only way the future will, on purpose rather than accident, become different from the present is through imagination.

I do, personally, feel on ongoing frustration with the evident failure of imagination on the part of many US citizens and the leaders they elect. Can we not do better at imagining the harm and the suffering of poverty, of war, of hunger, of inequality – of sweatshops, of prisons, of sexual abuse and harassment? This week, I was even visited by a moment of anger about this. A prison reform bill passed this week, and that’s a good thing. It only applies to the federal prison system, which is less than 9% of the 2.1 million incarcerated, but still -- a good thing: a first step, as the name of the bill says, the First Step Act. It might pave the way for further reforms, including reforms of the state prison systems. Of course, it raises the question of why we didn’t fix this a long time ago, and why we ever let our prison system be this horrible to begin with. The answer? Failure of imagination.

Our national Imagination Disability was highlighted for me when I caught comments from Senators that this bill would not have passed without the efforts of the President’s son-in-law who visited many Senators and told the personal story of his father serving 14 months for tax evasion, witness tampering, and illegal campaign contributions. I was like, “Really? You had to have another rich white guy in a nice suit tell you about their heartbreak before any kind of empathy or compassion could break through? That’s what it had to take? Have you no imaginative capacity to grasp the humanity of the incarcerated and the pointless cruelty to which they’ve been subjected? Can you not read the reports and the statistics, the stories, see the pictures, and know and feel the meaning of what the prison system does? Is your moral imagination really so impoverished that you can hear no plea unless made face-to-face and by a high elite of your party? Is your imagination so paltry that you aren’t curious to learn the stories and facts on your own?"

It’s the poets that help awaken us to reality when prose fails to break through our ideology. The poets incite imagination to see reality more clearly – and thereby to see new possibilities. Not that I have much hope that Senators will read poems, but you and I can. We can cultivate and expand our own imaginative capacity, and in that way contribute to expanding the average imagination of the populace. The poems I shared in part 1 (HERE) are a tiny sample. Seek out and read lots more. When you find one that moves you, read it out loud to somebody. Encourage them to read one of their favorites to you from time to time – maybe even daily.

The poets’ voices show us reality amid ideology. We need them to break through our ideology of exceptionalism. Exceptionalism says: “We’re unique. We’re special. And we are therefore exempt from the need to seriously examine where we may be going astray. We don’t need moral imagination, for all our doings are underwritten by our specialness.”

In what follows, I’ll look at the way exceptionalism manifested in Ancient Israel, and the parallel ways exceptionalism is in the American ideology. It’s helpful to see that the problem is not new, but very old. The antidote, too, is very old – for just as we have the prophets we call poets, ancient Israel had the poets they called prophets.

From the covenant of Abraham, and then the covenant of Moses, the Israelites understood themselves as God’s chosen people. With King David around 1000 BCE, chosenness began to be co-opted into the ideology of the ruling urban elite. Royal Jerusalem
“was deeply enthralled to an ideology of chosenness” (Brueggemann)
The ruling class took chosenness to mean divine support for their rule. With God on their side, they need not hold themselves accountable to the poor, the widowed, the vulnerable.

Under Solomon, the first temple was constructed. At the dedication of the temple, as described in 1st Kings, priests carried the ark of the covenant into the temple where it was housed in an unlit inner chamber, the holy of holies.
“Then Solomon said, 'The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.'” (1 Kings 8:12-13).
The holiest of holies could not be entered except by the High Priest, and even he only once a year. In the holy land, was the holier city, Jerusalem. In the holier city was the still holier temple. In the still holier temple, inaccessible, was the holiest of holies. This hierarchy of holy space symbolized and functioned to legitimize the hierarchy of economic class. As Walter Brueggemann argues at length, and with many references to scripture, what the urban elite were essentially doing was removing YHWH from engagement with history – no longer to speak as YHWH did to Abraham, to wrestle as YHWH did with Jacob. Instead, YHWH is now a silent power behind the powerful – the authority of the authorities.
“The intent of the liturgy is to put the residence of YHWH (and so the claims of the urban establishment) beyond the reach of historical contingency....The old chosenness of Israel has now been concretized and specified in the Jerusalem regime” (Brueggemann)
The word “forever” – as when Solomon says, “a place for you to dwell in forever” -- removes YHWH from dynamic engagement with history.

NEXT: What the prophets had to say about this.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Reality Amid Ideology"
See next: part 3: Prophetic Call to Neighborliness
See also part 1: Some Brueggemann and Some Poems


Some Brueggemann and Some Poems

Reality Amid Ideology, part 1

The call to neighborliness is the promise we have made to mystery.

This may seem a perplexing claim. By the time we get to the end of part 3, I hope it will make sense. Today, for part 1, I set the stage with some readings.

Reading 1: Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann, from Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Progphetic Tasks -- adapted.
The prophetic task in our contemporary society as in ancient Jerusalem, is to counter the governing ideology – in both cases that of exceptionalism. The prophetic task is to expose the distorted view of societal reality sustained by the ideology that breeds unrealistic notions of entitlement, privilege, and superiority. Prophetic work in the wake of such exposé is to advocate and enact an alternative that refuses the illusion of the ideology and that takes seriously the reality of historical existence. From the perspective of Israel’s prophetic tradition, the ideology of exceptionalism in Jerusalem seriously miscalculated on two fronts. First, it reduced YHWH to be patron of the dynasty and a guarantor of city and temple. It failed to acknowledge that YHWH is not simply a guarantor and patron, but is a lively character and active agent with a will and purpose other than that of the beneficiaries of the ideology. In imagining its own ultimacy, the Jerusalem establishment had shelved the ultimacy of the God who will not be mocked and consequently had failed to recognize its own pen-ultimacy, its dependence upon and accountability to YHWH. This hubris, expressed as autonomy, imagined that the ones with power to do so could exploit in greedy and violent ways as they chose, taking advantage of the weak and vulnerable. The prophetic critique exposes this sense of autonomy from God and unfettered freedom -- as disregard for the neighbor. The prophets, following the covenantal tradition of Deuteronomy, identify “widow, orphan, immigrant” as the visible representatives of the socially, economically vulnerable. The prophets insist that abuse of the vulnerable neighbor is an affront to God and a violation of Torah. Moreover, such abuse is an unsustainable policy, giving rise to destructiveness and costly consequences for the body politic. The disregard of both God and neighbor permits a predatory society to seem normal and acceptable.
The next readings are all poems, or excerpts from poems. They are contemporary illustrations of prophetic critique.

Reading 2: Bud Osborn (b. 1947), from “Complaint of an Advocate”
Sad, lord
Tired and worn
And sick
So sick
Of power politics
Of turf wars
Of meetings and committees and subcommittees
Sick of everything that loses
Because every deception
Every agenda
Every meeting
Every resentment
Every control grab
Every move for money
Slams down hardest
On the most wretched human beings
In north America
Who are suffering and dying
In the streets and alleys and shit-hole hotels
Of the downtown eastside
All the pettiness and ambition
Slams directly down
On those who are most afflicted
By poverty and illness
Addiction and discrimination
Homelessness and demonizing propaganda.
Reading 3: Guatamalan poet Julia Esquivel (b. 1930), "Thanksgiving Day in the United States"
In the third year of the massacres
by Lucas and the other coyotes
against the poor in Guatemala
I was led by the spirit into the desert

And on the eve
of Thanksgiving Day
I had a vision of Babylon
the city sprang forth arrogantly
from an enormous platform
of dirty smoke produced
by motor vehicles, machinery
and contamination from smokestacks

It was as if all the petroleum
from a violated earth
was being consumed
by the Lords of capital
and was slowly rising
obscuring the face
of the Sun of Justice
and the Ancient of Days…

Each day false prophets
invited the inhabitants
of the Unchaste City
to kneel before the idols
of gluttony,
and death:
Idolaters from all nations
were being converted to the American way of Life…

The Spirit told me
in the River of death
flows the blood of many peoples
sacrificed without mercy
and removed a thousand times from their hands,
the blood of Kekchis, and Panzos,
of blacks from Haiti, of Guaranis from Paraguay,
of the peoples sacrificed for ‘development’
of the trans-Amazonic strip,
the blood of the Indians’ ancestors
who lived on these lands, of those who
even now are kept hostage on the great mountain
and on the Black Hills of Dakota
by the guardians of the best…

My soul was tortured like this
for three and a half days
and a great weariness weighed upon my breast
I felt the suffering of my people very deeply!

The in tears, I prostrated myself
and cried out: “Lord, what can we do?…
Come to me, Lord, I wish to die among my people!”
Without strength, I waited for my answer.
After a long silence
and a heavy obscurity
The One who sits on the throne
to judge the nations
spoke in a soft whisper
in the secret recesses of my heart:

you have to denounce their idolatry
in good times and bad.
Force them to hear the truth
for what is impossible to humans
is possible for God.
Reading 4: From another Julia Esquivel poem.
The walls of the Temples of Mammon
Are like polished steel
And in their windows
Reality is distorted,
And so are the lights ignited
By the petroleum which its priests
have taken from the people
Who now struggle for life and freedom
On the other side of the Rio Grande.
Reading 5: From a third Julia Esquivel poem
And in a third poem she writes:
In the most obscure and sordid place,
In the most hostile and harshest,
In the most corrupt
And nauseating places,
There You do Your work.
That is why Your Son
Descended into hell
In order to transform what IS NOT
And to purify that which IS BECOMING.
That is hope!
Reading 6: Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (b. 1923), “Tortures.”
Nothing has changed.
The body is susceptible to pain;
it has to eat and breathe the air, and sleep;
it has thin skin, and the blood is just beneath it;
an adequate supply of teeth and fingernails;
its bones can be broken; its joints can be stretched.
In tortures, all this is taken into account.

Nothing has changed.
The body shudders as it shuddered
before the founding of Rome and after,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
Tortures are just as they were, only the earth has grown smaller,
and what happens sounds as if it's happening in the next room.

Nothing has changed.
It's just that there are more people,
and beside the old offences new ones have sprung -
real, make-believe, short-lived, and non-existent.
But the howl with which the body answers to them,
was, is and ever will be a cry of innocence
according to the age-old scale and pitch.

Nothing has changed.
Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.
Yet the movement of hands to shield the head remains the same.
The body writhes, jerks and tries to pull away,
its legs fail, it falls, its knees jack-knife,
it bruises, swells, dribbles and bleeds.

Nothing has changed.
Except for the course of rivers,
the lines of forests, coasts, deserts and glaciers.
Amid those landscapes roams the soul,
disappears, returns, draws nearer, moves away,
a stranger to itself, elusive,
now sure, now uncertain of its own existence,
while the body is and is and is
and has nowhere to go.
Reading 7: Ada Limon (b. 1976), “A New National Anthem”
The truth is, I’ve never cared for the National
Anthem. If you think about it, it’s not a good
song. Too high for most of us with “the rockets’
red glare” and then there are the bombs.
(Always, always there is war and bombs.)
Once, I sang it at homecoming and threw
even the tenacious high school band off key.
But the song didn’t mean anything, just a call
to the field, something to get through before
the pummeling of youth. And what of the stanzas
we never sing, the third that mentions “no refuge
could save the hireling and the slave”? Perhaps
the truth is that every song of this country
has an unsung third stanza, something brutal
snaking underneath us as we blindly sing
the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands
hoping our team wins. Don’t get me wrong, I do
like the flag, how it undulates in the wind
like water, elemental, and best when it’s humbled,
brought to its knees, clung to by someone who
has lost everything, when it’s not a weapon,
when it flickers, when it folds up so perfectly
you can keep it until it’s needed, until you can
love it again, until the song in your mouth feels
like sustenance, a song where the notes are sung
by even the ageless woods, the shortgrass plains,
the Red River Gorge, the fistful of land left
unpoisoned, that song that’s our birthright,
that’s sung in silence when it’s too hard to go on,
that sounds like someone’s rough fingers weaving
into another’s, that sounds like a match being lit
in an endless cave, the song that says my bones
are your bones, and your bones are my bones,
and isn’t that enough?
* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Reality Amid Ideology"
See next: Part 2: Imagination Shortage
Part 3: Prophetic Call to Neighborliness


A Kind of Trinitarian-ish Logic Comes to Unitarians

Justice on Earth, part 3

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan that broke into national news a few years ago is another example. If I may remember with you today some key details of that story:

Flint, Michigan has just under 100,000 people, 41% poor and 57% African-American. In 2014, Michigan state authorities, to save money, switched the water supply of Flint, MI, from Lake Huron to the Flint River, known for its pollution. Almost immediately, boil advisories had to be issued because fecal coliform bacteria was flowing into the homes of Flint. Because the Flint River is polluted to begin with, water from that river is corrosive. Flint River water was found to be 19 times more corrosive than water from Lake Huron. Treatment with anti-corrosive agents would go a long way to address that, and federal law requires such treatment. But the state Department of Environmental Quality violated that federal law and simply didn’t treat Flint’s water with anti-corrosive agents.

So this corrosive water, unmitigated in its corrosion, began flowing to Flint. It was coming in through aging pipes, and because it was so corrosive, it leached lead out of the pipes. Lead content in the drinking and bathing water in Flint shot so high it met the EPA’s definition of "toxic waste."

In fairness to the state of Michigan, as fair as we can be, the switch to the Flint River was always meant as a temporary measure for two years while a new pipeline from Lake Huron was being constructed. OK, good to note. But, still! It is not OK for the water in people’s homes to be toxic waste for two years – or even for one minute. Is there any doubt that what happened to Flint would never have happened to a predominantly middle-class and white city?
“African Americans making $50,000 to $60,000 per year are much more likely to live in a polluted environment than poor white families making just $10,000 per year.” (Paula Cole Jones, Justice on Earth).
These examples – and there are many more -- show us the interconnections between environment, race, and poverty.

As Rev. Manish Mishra-Marzetti writes in Justice on Earth:
“Lack of economic opportunity is tied to the quality of local schools and the health impacts of pollution; the inability to access clean water and healthy food directly impacts one’s ability to function in school or at work; and the intentional siting of power plants and waste facilities away from wealthier and whiter communities impacts local housing prices, affects health, and points toward endemic, structural racism. It is all linked; no single piece stands in isolation.”
Rev. Jennifer Nordstrom’s essay in the book notes that
“communities of color were exploited and poisoned through the entire nuclear fuel cycle: from uranium mining on Indigenous land and the contamination of surrounding Indigenous, Chicano, and Latinx communities to nuclear waste storage in communities of color.”
Militarism, colonialism, racism, and the environmental degradation are interrelated and mutually support each other.

And just as environmental problems – the pollution, and the climate change – disproportionately affect the poor and people of color, environmental protections offer us opportunities for addressing income inequality. Paula Cole Jones’ essay reminds us that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 30s “provided resources for renewing the land and putting people back to work. There was a great deal of environmental activity across the country, including the creation of the Civil Conservation Corps.”

Government programs can create Green Jobs that especially recruit among minority communities. Working for this requires seeing the interconnections between issues – seeing that they all flow from the same root, and coming together to address that root, rather than fragmenting ourselves into discrete silos of concern.

There is a certain theological irony in Unitarians coming around to this view – a view that many nonUnitarian thinkers and writers have been fleshing out for some years – this view of all justice issues as interconnected, as all based in conceptions of supremacy and dominance.

We Unitarians, you’ll remember, got our name from rejecting Trinitarianism. Unitarianism began around central values of freedom, reason, and tolerance -- but, in particular, what we wanted was the freedom to follow our reason in leaving Trinitarian Orthodoxy behind. Trinitarianism says that God is one and three at the same time. The Athansian Creed puts it this way:
“there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.”
Trinitarianism says God is one essence, in three persons. The origin of Unitarianism, some 250 years ago in America, lies in saying this makes no sense. "One is one, and three is three," we said. "One is not three, and three is not one. That's just being self-contradictory."

A couple centuries later, when it comes to justice, we are again Trinitarian – or, rather, not Trinitarian, but Multi-tarian. There is one injustice to people of color, another to the Earth itself, another to LGBTQ folk, another to women, another to the poor, another to nonhuman animals. But the justicehead for people of color, for the Earth, for LGBTQ, women, the poor, and nonhuman animals is one. “The glory equal and the majesty coeternal,” we might add. There is one essence of justice – the ending of all forms of supremacy and domination – but that essence presents in multiple “persons”: in the multiple forms that oppression takes.

Here at CUUC, we have a number of Social Justice Teams, and this is central to our mission – we’re here to foster compassion and understanding and engage in service to transform ourselves and our world. If you’re not on one of our Social Justice Teams, I hope you’ll consider joining one.
My goal is 100% of the members on some Social Justice Team. What I’m saying today is that our Social Justice Teams each need to think about their interconnections with the others. Join the team – the “person” of justice that most resonates with you – but don’t silo there. Remember that there is one essence of justice uniting the various “persons” – and that all the teams here are working together for the same one thing.

Let us then increase our communication among the different teams, find joint projects if possible, and even when we are working on separate projects, to do so in a way that is conscious of the relationship to all the other issues.

What are your hopes for peace and justice in the new year, and how will those hopes affect your life?

From Justice on Earth, including Justice to the Earth, we get to Peace on Earth. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Justice on Earth"
See also
Part 1: Christmas and "Peace on Earth"
Part 2: Environmental Issues are Race and Class Issues