This Week's Prayer

Dear What Is:

We don’t always notice the reality we are in the middle of – like fish that forget about water because they are always immersed in it.

We would like to notice.

Wonder and beauty surrounds us.

Sometimes it’s like snow: bright and shining, glinting like diamonds -- and all we see is what a hassle and inconvenience it is.

Our lives are graced with so much to be thankful for: trees and oceans, people and wildlife, food and shelter, sunshine and air.

We would like to notice.

In the very midst of our overflowing bounty, there is also distress,anguish, pain, and loss. We would like to notice that, too – for we become real and realized by holding reality steadily before us, turning never away from the cries.

This week in South Sudan, 280 child soldiers were freed. The path of healing for them and their families is uncertain. So many good women and men dedicate the energies of their lives to building a world in which all children will be free to be children, to play, to laugh and sleep peacefully at night. Their work inspires us, their goals are ours, their task is nowhere near completion. We would like to notice – and support.

We remember the displaced, the refugees, and all who live in captivity.

We remember Kenji Goto of Japan.

Points east of here this week got the blizzard that we didn’t. We remember those for whom such snow and cold is neither pretty nor an inconvenience but a threat to health or life.

We would like to notice all that is – for presence to beauty and to tragedy alike is the ground of love.


Welcome to Liberal Religion, 4: Justice, Social Incarnation, Hope

Third smooth stone of liberal religion: Justice.
"Religious liberalism affirms the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community. It is this which make the role of the prophet central and indispensible in liberalism." (James Luther Adams)
Our Judeo-Christian heritage bequeaths to us a respect for the role of the prophet. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible – Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, et al – had a recognized role as the mouths of God – a role which even the king felt compelled to respect. Utilizing the protections of a legitimate, recognized social role, the prophets criticized their government, criticized the powerful on behalf of the dispossessed and powerless.

Isaiah said, “What do you mean by crushing my people, and grinding down the poor?” He denounced judges who took bribes and failed to give proper justice in cases involving the orphan and the widow. Amos proclaimed divine judgment upon those who “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.”
“The prophets said that the culture was not under the control of centralized power; viable culture requires the institutionalization of dissent – in other words, the freedom to criticize the powers that be.” (James Luther Adams)
The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century propounded the idea of the priesthood of all believers. Protestants declared that it is not the job of someone else (namely, a limited class of priests) to mediate our relationship with the divine. Rather, each of us must take that responsibility. Liberal religion goes another step, and proclaims not just the priesthood of all, but the prophethood of all. It is not the job of someone else (namely, a limited class of prophets) to be the critics of the powerful and the advocates of the oppressed. Rather, each of us must take that responsibility. Liberal religious faith calls all of us to the prophet's task.

Liberal religion is appalled at the kind of religion that could be called an opiate of the masses. Our faith must be good for something other than private and sleepy personal bliss. It must be good for helping bring justice – fairness -- to the world.

Fourth smooth stone of liberal religion: social incarnation.
"We deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation....The decisive forms of goodness in society are institutional forms. No one can properly put faith in merely individual virtue, even though that is a prerequisite for societal virtues. The faith of the liberal must express itself in societal forms, in the forms of education, in economic and social organization, in political organization. Without these, freedom and justice in community are impossible." (James Luther Adams)
Liberal religion is committed to institutions. Granted, institutions inevitably have shortcomings. Institutions are boxes, and we like to think of ourselves as "thinking outside the box." Institutions necessarily have to put some energy toward their own self-preservation, and this can sometimes seems to overshadow any other reason for existing. Institutions tend toward bureaucracy and they develop their own culture which can confuse or frustrate anyone who isn't an insider. Good institutions work at minimizing these tendencies, but none eliminates them.

For all the drawbacks, institutions are absolutely necessary. The decisive forms of goodness in society are institutional forms. An institution is any recognizable pattern of interaction. Marriage, for instance, is an institution. The family is an institution.

We cannot afford the purity of absolute rules and values. Virtue can remain immaculate only if it never touches the conditions of life, only if it is divorced from specific historical situations and cultural contexts. Social incarnation means we must embody our values in the world as we actually find it and in relations with others. We must build and sustain the institutions through which social transformation becomes possible -- schools, congregations, political movements.

Developing just institutions involves the messiness of claiming our power amid conflicting perspectives and needs, rather than the purity of ahistorical, decontextualized ideals. It is not enough to love. That love must be embodied, incarnated, in and through effective social forms.

Specifically, in the area of religion, we cannot afford retreat from faith institutions into vapid claims to be "spiritual but not religious" (where "religious" means being a part of a religious institution). We need each other to support our spiritual growth and keep us on track. We need that support and guidance organized and reliable. Yes, it gets messy, and it has its annoyances. Any sustainable form of love always does.

Fifth smooth stone of liberal religion: Hope.
"The resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism." (James Luther Adams)
Liberal religion has a sense of history – we are embedded in an ongoing story of change. Some religions convey a sense that nothing changes, or nothing that spiritually matters. Other religions tell a story of decline: There was a golden age long ago, the world has been getting worse ever since, and there’s no help for it but to retreat into such refuge as the religion offers.

Liberal religion does not naively hold that progress is inevitable, just that it is possible.

We are open-eyed about the dangers. We have seen the holocaust. We read the papers, and we know the great harm that people can do and are doing to each other today. We know that the Earth’s ecosystems are in danger, that our leaders appear unlikely to take meaningful action to preserve them, and that continued environmental degradation might lead to resource wars covering the planet in a bleak landscape of bloody violence and agonizing famine.

Liberal religion holds that history does matter – our spiritual development is tied up with our society’s development – and that progress of peace and justice is possible. When we say an “attitude of ultimate optimism,” we mean that for all humankind’s ignorance and denial, for all our obliviousness and narrow self-interest, over the long run we are a species that learns, that can teach, that can disseminate not just information, but knowledge, and not just knowledge, but wisdom.

We may yet avoid a new dark age, and even if we don’t, compassion will not die. Humankind is likely to survive, and if we do we will emerge ultimately better equipped to build institutions of peace, justice, and sustainable prosperity.

(Full text of J.L. Adams' "Five Smooth Stones": CLICK HERE.)

Sometimes people have the misconception that liberal religion is “religion light.” Fannie Mae Holmes, the wife of Oliver Wendell Holmes, when asked why she was a Unitarian, is said to have replied, “Because in Boston everyone has to be something, and Unitarian is the least you can be.” She was thinking in terms of doctrine. We are indeed quite light on that.

But in fact the path of covenant, of justice, of deepening and growth, is demanding. We are the free church, by aspiration, and there is no easy walk to freedom.

Because it is so hard, we need each other. We cannot truly become ourselves by ourselves, cannot develop the resources for meaning-making and coping with loss and grief without help, cannot alone cultivate inner peace and bring that to the work for world peace. Liberal religion welcomes all who would join us on this difficult and beautiful path.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Welcome to Liberal Religion"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


Welcome to Liberal Religion, 3: The First Two Smooth Stones

The first smooth stone of liberal religion: Growth.
"Religious liberalism depends first on the principle that revelation is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism." (James Luther Adams)
Our religious tradition is a living tradition because we are always learning. Free religion cannot be chained to a particular doctrine.

For us, religion is not a set of propositions to which we commit ourselves. We do not seek the false protection of beliefs we expect to be exempt from revision. Rather, we seek openness to new learning.

For example, we are interested – religiously interested -- in the developments of science. When we learn that some kinds of acquired characteristics can alter our genes and be passed on genetically, we take this not merely as a cognitive factoid, but a spiritual lesson. Cautious about stretching findings too far, we nevertheless take the reminder that experience matters, and we can change more fundamentally than we had imagined. When we read that the Higgs Boson gives objects their mass, we are prompted to notice that the existence of mass is actually profoundly puzzling. This ordinary world we take for granted is shot through all the way down with deep and wondrous mystery that awakens our awe.

Religion's job -- one of them -- is to provide a story that helps us make sense of our self and our world. The thing is, a lot of religious stories are rather fixed. The world may go through a renaissance, a birth of science, an age of reason, an industrial revolution, and emerge into a postmodern information age, but some religious stories are barely revised. Not ours. As new knowledge emerges -- in physics, biology, ecology, brain sciences, psychology, sociology, economics, or anything -- liberal religion looks to integrate that knowledge into human spiritual life.

Some religions seem to encourage adherents to sequester religious life away from the rest of life – no matter what is learned out there, it will have no effect on religious beliefs. Liberal religion, by contrast, looks everywhere for lessons.

Second smooth stone of liberal religion: Freedom.
"All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not on coercion." (James Luther Adams)
We freely choose to enter into relationship with one another.

The problem with doctrine is not only that it inhibits growth and learning, but that it inhibits the freedom of your own mind and heart to go its own way. Our point is not only that there are always new things to learn, but that each of us learns and grows in different ways. Freedom engenders diversity, and liberal religion aims to embrace and celebrate diversity.

We do not say, “you can believe anything you want to.” We uphold the freedom to believe as our hearts, minds, and consciences dictate, but we recognize that what they dictate is not always what we’d like. Thus, we do not believe what we want to; we believe what we have to – the compulsion coming from your own heart, mind, and conscience, not from the religious institution.

I preach what I think – and it’s up to you to work out what of it to believe. There’s the story of a visitor to a Unitarian Universalist worship service who sat through the sermon with growing shock and incredulity at the ideas being voiced from the pulpit.

Afterward a congregation member asked the visitor, “So how did you like it?”

“I can’t believe half the things the minister said!” sputtered the outraged visitor.

“Oh, good,” answered the UU. “You’ll fit right in.”

Our emphasis on freely choosing our relationships manifests in society at large as, for instance, support for LGBT rights – and it manifests in our congregational life as the understanding that we are a covenantal tradition. We are not held together by creed, but by covenant. Signing the membership book at a Unitarian Universalist congregation means freely entering into covenantal relationship with the other members, and with all UUs. Our covenantal promise is to walk together, to support each other, to be friends along the journey, cherishing the diversity of our perspectives and affirming and promoting Unitarian Universalist values:
  • the inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity, compassion;
  • Acceptance of one another, encouragement to spiritual growth;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • Democracy and the rights of conscience;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.
This is not a creed – it is a set of values that we share and by which covenant to help each other live.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Welcome to Liberal Religion"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4


Welcome to Liberal Religion, 2: Religion Is About Three Things

What do Unitarian Universalists believe? We believe that your religion isn’t about what you believe. When Paul invented the religion we know as Christianity he put believing at the center. When Islam was created six centuries later, it followed Paul’s model, and was also belief-centric. Judaism and the Eastern religions have teachings, principles, and practices -- some of which might be characterized as "beliefs" -- but only Christianity and Islam put the act of believing at the center. So pervasive and influential has Paul’s approach been that it’s common to think that that’s what religion is: some set of beliefs. Christianity and Islam may define themselves by their beliefs, but that’s not always what religion is about.

Religion is about three things. It’s about how you live – the ethics and values that guide your life. Second, it’s about community, connecting bonds, and the rituals we do to affirm that bond. Third, it’s about experience – the experiences of awe, wonder, mystery, and transcendence. As religion scholar Phyllis Tickle puts it, religion is a "cable of meaning" composed of three strands: morality, corporeality (i.e., the apparatus of community), and spirituality.

Those are three rather different things. A church is for trying to bring those things together in such a way that each one will reinforce the other two. When it comes to the ethics and values to guide our lives, we need help. So that’s where having a community to which we choose to be accountable comes in. A religious community – a community of shared rituals, shared stories and songs, and a shared orientation to explore together the meaning of things – helps guide our thinking about how to live, helps us learn how to live out shared ethics and values, while also having integrity with our respective individual passions. And all of that helps us open to religious experience, and understand and integrate the experiences of transcendence.

Liberal – from the same root as “liberty” -- indicates that liberal religion is free religion. The Unitarian and the Universalist denominations were founded in this country over 200 years ago, and they consolidated into one in 1961. Back in 1865, the Unitarians had briefly considered renaming themselves "The Liberal Church of America," and nearly 100 years later, we considered "The United Liberal Church" as a name for our newly consolidated faith. Instead, we opted for "Unitarian Universalist" -- which, at ten syllables, is quite a mouthful, but it does acknowledge our history.

Unitarians and Universalists have been, from our beginnings, committed to free religion, and one of the things that means is that we are free of doctrine. We are creedless -- along with United Church of Christ, Quakers, Disciples of Christ, and Baptists, who also call themselves noncreedal. What is unique among the historically Protestant denominations is that we are not only creedless but also also canonless. We have no list of Canonical texts we call our Bible. Rather, we learn from and are inspired by an ever expanding set of texts.

Saul put his armor upon David, by James Tissot
When the great Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams (1901-1994) delineated the "five smooth stones" of liberalism, he was alluding to this passage from the Hebrew Bible about David preparing to meet Goliath:
“Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, 'I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.' So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.” (1 Samuel 17: 38-40, NRSV)
We may treat this as an allegory. On the cultural scene, liberal religion is small compared to the giants of more conservative religion -- and we are relatively young. The inflexible armor of doctrine does not fit us. We cannot walk in that constraint, and we cast it off. Instead, we rely upon five smooth stones we have selected.

The five smooth stones of liberal religion are:
  • Growth: Revelation is continuous.
  • Freedom: Relations must rest on free consent.
  • Justice: Establishment of a just and loving community is an obligation.
  • Social Incarnation: Virtue cannot exist in isolation or in the purity of an ideal.
  • Hope: Transformation is possible.
In our next post, we'll look more fully into the ways these five "stones" function and distinguish liberal religion.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Welcome to Liberal Religion"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4


Welcome to Liberal Religion, 1: Unitarians and Lightbulbs

How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?

You may have heard much of this, but it is instructive, and newcomers to liberal religion need to know.

We have submitted the question to an ad hoc task force, and after months of diligent investigation of the question, they have produced their report, from which I herewith quote, in part:
We have considered a number of alternatives, and each potential answer has been cleared with the Committee on Lighting Diversity, which recommends that each answer be accompanied by the following disclaimer.
"We do not intend to offend or to imply that incandescent lighting is an unreliable source of illumination. We recognize that some of us are uncomfortable with the term 'light bulb,' and suggest that they feel free to substitute the phrase 'Brussel sprouts.'"
We have strived throughout our research to affirm and uphold that the light bulb is a natural part of the universe which evolved over many small steps; that there is to be no discrimination against dark bulbs in any form; and that all bulbs have the right to screw into the sockets of their choice. We seek for each bulb the greatest opportunity to develop itself to its full electrical potential.

Thus we approached the question: How many UUs does it take to change a light bulb? There were many arguments in support of “None.”

- Because UUs aren’t afraid of the dark.
- Because UUs believe the light bulb must change itself.
- Because UUs accept light bulbs exactly the way they are.

Several members of the task force pointed out that, despite the cogency of these arguments, a number of light bulbs at the church have, in fact, been changed, leaving unanswered the question of how many UUs it took to change them. Other members, however, noted that it is the custodian who changed them, and he is believed to be a Lutheran.

Our task force also considered that the number of UUs it takes to change a light bulb is three: one to change the light bulb and two to check that the power isn’t going to her head.
The Board received the report of the ad hoc task force. Upon deliberation, the Board decided, rather than adopt any of the task force’s recommendations that this was, after all, a matter for the Worship Committee, to which they referred the question. The Worship Committee subsequently ran the following announcement in the newsletter:
We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb. Present it next month at our special light bulb Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, compact fluorescent, LED, 3-way, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.
Welcome to liberal religion!

That was a joke. It’s not really like that in Unitarian Universalist congregations.

Except that it kinda is . . .

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Adapted from Equally Valid Paths to Luminescence, compiled by Carol Pentleton
This is part 1 of 4 of "Welcome to Liberal Religion"
Click for other parts: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4


The Spirit of Truth, 4: Journey Toward Wholeness

Unitarian Universalists have struggled with the legacy of racism created in Colonial America as a way to co-opt indentured servants and minimize rebellion.

In the 19th century, Unitarians were at the forefront of the abolition movement. We are proud of that.

A century later, many of us were likewise in the forefront of the civil rights movement. Among the 30,000 who marched with Dr. King in Selma in 1965 were
“about 500 UU lay people and about 250 UU ministers. The ministers who went to Selma represented a quarter to a third of all UU ministers in full fellowship. Add to that the dozens who spent time with the Mississippi Summer Project, the Delta Ministry Project, and other efforts in the South afterward; those who led their communities’ response; and the dozen ministers who participated in the UU presence in Selma through the summer of 1965. It isn’t a stretch to estimate that half of the 710 UU ministers in full fellowship were actively engaged in this struggle.” (Mark Morrison-Reed, "Selma's Challenge, UUWorld, 2014 Winter)
We are proud of that, too.

Yet we have not always been noble.

In the 1920s the first two African American Unitarian ministers, Ethelred Brown and Lewis McGee both encountered continual discouragement and resistance from the denominational leaders at the time who saw no place for a black man in the pulpits of their predominantly white congregations.

In 1968, just three years after so many UUs had transformative experiences in Selma, our General Assembly was torn apart over race issues.

Our denomination through the years has launched a number of initiatives to raise the consciences of UUs on race and encourage racial diversity in our congregations. In 1996, the program called “Journey Toward Wholeness” began.

In response, here at Community Unitarian Church at White Plains, the minister at the time, Rev. Shannon Bernard, called together a group of church members who began the program we call “In The Spirit Of Truth.” In The Spirit Of Truth (ITSOT) has been meeting on the first Sunday of the month at Community Unitarian Church for 19 years. In the year and a half that I have been with this congregation, I have joined them about half the time.

At our In The Spirit of Truth gatherings, we sit in a circle, pass the talking stick around, and take turns sharing our thoughts and our feelings about any form of bigotry or prejudice. There may be a particular issue or episode from history or the recent news that serves as a topic for the day, or there may not be. The name, In The Spirit Of Truth, comes from the recognition of the need to learn
“to speak the truth to each other as we perceive the truth without fear of censure, to listen to uncomfortable feelings below it, and to see ourselves in others, to see others as ourselves, and to gain insights into the experiences of others which would help us to live our principles in an increasingly diverse world.” (Mary Lane Cobb)
For nearly 20 years now, In The Spirit Of Truth has been gathering at Community Unitarian Church and providing a context for participants to share how they have experienced the racial divide – or, as the project expanded, any divide based on prejudice, or that produces discrimination.

For those who speak in the Community Unitarian Church pulpit, the Spirit of Truth stands visibly before them. For those who gather in her name on the first Sunday of the month, she is embodied in the faces and the words and hearts – the broken and healing; bleeding and living; shining hearts – of those who speak, listen, and hold one another respectfully, no matter what is said.

In that sharing come surprises. We may be surprised by what we hear others saying -- or by what we hear our own voice saying. We learn our truth, we connect with others through their truth, and the healing of the wounds of racism, wounds inflicted by a divide-and-subjugate strategy of landowners more than 300 years ago, begins.

The bandages of programs, the splints of institutions, and the sutures of social justice will fail without the salve of truth – the awareness of what is so, shared knowledge of how things are. To all the members of Community Unitarian Church -- and, indeed, to every resident of Westchester County who may be reading this blog: if you have not been a part of In The Spirit Of Truth, or if you haven’t for a while, for your own sake and for all our sakes, go. Participate. Be moved, perhaps to tears. And begin to be healed.

May it be so.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "The Spirit of Truth"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Audio (with slideshow) on Youtube: CLICK HERE


This Week's Prayer

Dear Ground of Being,

We pray to remember, to grow in gratitude for the voices of insight among us. We remember Marcus Borg, who died this week. The liberal Christian theologian was a leader in the Jesus Seminar, and helped thousands of thoughtful people see a way to bring careful intelligence together with moving faith.

We pray to reconnect with our selves, the self that is all things; to accept ourselves exactly as we are, and at the same time to encourage ourselves to spiritual growth. In disconnection, we have often ignored the oppressed and brokenhearted, and so we pray. May righteous anger give us energy for lives of compassion and justice. There are some things to which, as Martin Luther King put it, we ought to be maladjusted.

Raif Badawi, sentenced last May to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes by a Saudi court for “insulting Islam.” Ill after the first 50 lashes, he waits to heal so that he can be lashed again and again. May we be maladjusted to cruelty in the name of religion.

122 men are still held at the United States’ military prison in Guant├ínamo, Cuba. May we be maladjusted to this imprisonment.

The leader of Boko Haram claims his group killed hundreds of women and girls in the Nigerian town of Baga and threatens to attack Niger, Chad and Cameroon. May we be maladjusted to misogynist violence.

Texas has no state law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, so the Houston City Council approved an ordinance to do that. A petition drive for a repeal referendum has ended up in court. May we be maladjusted to discrimination against LGBT folk.

Russian troops have been pouring into eastern Ukraine, and combat has broken out on a half-dozen fronts. May we be maladjusted to imperialist war.

We are given this brief life, not to make peace with war, but to make peace instead of war. May it be so.


The Spirit of Truth, 3: Explaining Some Mysteries

We are all wounded by the race line that slashes across our psyches, whatever side of that line we may think we’re on. Once the race line has been established, there’s a projection that occurs. Learning to be white means learning to project upon darker-skinned people everything in us that feels low, vile, or shameful. A constant, nagging sense of unworthiness is part of the deal. Here, you get to be white, like the rich folks, but you can’t help noticing that you’re still poor, so maybe you’re not really worthy of your whiteness.

The more whites were made to feel unworthy, the more they projected unworthy qualities on the group they were allowed to, and told to, despise. The more whites internalized that message, “You’re white, so if you just work hard enough, you’re bound to be OK,” the more they projected upon blacks the laziness they feared in themselves. White racism against blacks is always a version of self-disgust adopted in a desperate attempt to hold onto worth and dignity in the face of exclusion from the upper classes.

This begins to explain a few mysteries.

Martin Luther King brought his war on slums to Chicago for his 1966 campaign for open housing. He encountered greater hostility than he had ever seen. Rocks and bricks were thrown.
King, protected by supporters after being hit with a stone
during a housing march in Chicago's all-white Marquette Park
neighborhood. -Chicago Tribune photo 1966 Aug 5
As King marched, someone hurled a stone. It struck King on the head. Stunned, he fell to one knee. He stayed on the ground for several seconds. As he rose, aides and bodyguards surrounded him to protect him from the rocks, bottles and firecrackers that rained down on the demonstrators. King was one of 30 people who were injured; the disturbance resulted in 40 arrests. He later explained why he put himself at risk: "I have to do this--to expose myself--to bring this hate into the open." He had done that before, but Chicago was different. "I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today," he said. (Chicago Tribune, CLICK HERE)
What could account for this intensity of hostility from whites whose every economically-visible interest was unthreatened? Why were the lower and middle-class whites more virulently racist than the upper-class whose interests were more directly challenged?

Because if worth and dignity didn’t come from whiteness, they just weren’t sure where it could come from.

Over and over, a substantial portion of white lower and middle-class voters vote against their own self-interest and in favor of wealthy interests. That doesn’t happen in most other countries in the world. Why does it happen here?

It's because here is where the idea of being white -- that is, learning to distance yourself from the interests blacks would have – even if, in reality, you did share those interests – was invented. "White" has meant identifying with the wealthy, identifying with a shared paleness over and against shared economic needs.

Why is the US unable to enact a fairer, much more effective, and even cheaper health-care system – a single-payer government National Health Insurance – while Europe and Canada and Japan have this eminently sensible system?

It's because the US's specific heritage of racism taught us to identify with the wealthy, and the wealthy don't need national health insurance.

Why is the US unable to provide adequate public schooling, affordable housing for all, and progressive taxation?

It's because the US's specific heritage of racism taught us to identify with the wealthy, and the wealthy send their kids to private schools, aren't at risk of homelessness, and don't want to be progressively taxed.

Why is it that when Black men open-carried firearms as the Black Panthers did in the 1960s and 70s, gun control legislation passed, and when that perceived threat was gone and whites wanted to open carry, those controls were rolled back, and white people heavily armed in public are celebrated as patriotic and freedom loving?

Why is it that the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created much harsher penalties for possession of crack cocaine, used mostly by blacks, than for a quantity of powdered cocaine, used mostly by whites, that produced similar effects?

It’s because the national psyche has developed the longstanding habit of projecting upon dark skin color everything it is scared of, and is unconsciously convinced that black people doing a dangerous activity is much, much more dangerous than white people doing the same thing.

Why is it that the percentage of African Americans in prison is almost six times higher than the percentage of European Americans in prison?

Why is it that a young black male is 21 times more likely to be shot by police than his white counterpart?

Why is it that otherwise identical resumes yield a 50 percent greater chance of being invited for an interview if the applicant’s name is stereotypically white than if the name is stereotypically black?

Why is it that black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units and black homebuyers are shown about one-fifth fewer homes?

Why is it that blacks and whites use illegal drugs at the same rate, but African Americans are arrested on drug charges at a three times higher rate?

I think we know why.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "The Spirit of Truth"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4
Audio (with slideshow) on Youtube: CLICK HERE


The Spirit of Truth, 2: Divide and Keep Conquered

In Colonial America of the 1600s, the main difference between indentured servants and slaves was from the point of view of the masters. The workers that came from Africa cost more, but they paid off in the long run because you didn’t have to release them after a certain period of time – and, as an additional bonus, you also owned their children. For that reason, the slave demand brought a steady increase in African slave populations through the late 1600s. As time went by, the trend of increased numbers of African slaves combined with more and more of the indentured serving out their time and more and more European-born poor freedmen in the population.

Only then did the masters begin to draw the sort of race line that today is so familiar to us. They did it as a strategy against rebellion.

The freedmen were persons without house or land, rankled by unfair taxes, the greed of legislators who then, as now, were in the pockets of the wealthy, and land use regulations that made it very difficult for them to ever own land. Freedmen with “disappointed hopes” and slaves of “desperate hope” were joining forces to mount ever more virulent rebellions (Thandeka, Learning to Be White 45).

The landowners strategy was to invent American racism as we know it. Whereas previously the big divide was between the vile rabble over here and the landowners over here, the new way of grouping people encouraged the European-born part of the rabble to think of themselves as “white” – as sharing something crucial with the landowners which the African-born did not. Thus the freedmen were co-opted into betraying their own economic self-interest to support the landowners’ interests with which they identified by virtue of their shared whiteness. It was a brilliant divide-and-keep-conquered strategy “to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks by a screen of racial contempt” (Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia 327).

The trick was accomplished by such means as passing new laws offering some protections to whites even while still indentured. As of 1705 in Virginia, any negro slave could be given 30 lashes on the bare back, but it was forbidden to whip a Christian white servant naked. The whipping happened, but the extra indignity did not – which helped the indentured begin to learn to be white, to identify with their oppressors against the even more oppressed. That same year, 1705, horses, cattle, and hogs were confiscated from slaves and sold to benefit poor whites. Any white was given the right to whip a black servant or slave. Slave owners were urged to bar their black slaves from learning the skills of a trade in order to preserve that work for white artisans.

In ways subtle and obvious, a dignity based on whiteness alone was created where nothing of the sort had been imagined 50 years before.
“The gap between the wealthy and poor widened as a result of slave productivity. Thus the sense that poor whites now shared status and dignity with their social betters was largely illusory.” (Thandeka, Learning to Be White 47)
But that illusion was powerful. Being white meant despising blacks, which afforded this illusory dignity that kept poor whites from agitating for economic reform on their own behalf and instead adopting attitudes and behavior to assist the landowners in keeping the blacks down.

We carry that legacy today.

Many of the whites among us, if we think back, would be able to tell a story of how we learned to be white. I’m talking about stories like Dan’s.
“In college during the late 1950s, Dan joined a fraternity. With his prompting, his local chapter pledged a black student. When the chapter’s national headquarters learned of this first step toward integration of its ranks, headquarters threatened to rescind the local chapter’s charter unless the black student was expelled. The local chapter caved in to the pressure, and Dan was elected to tell the black student he would have to leave the fraternity. Dan did it” (Thandeka 1)
-- with tremendous shame.

Or stories like Sarah’s.
“At age sixteen, Sarah brought her best friend home with her from high school. After the friend left, Sarah’s mother told her not to invite her friend home again. ‘Why?’ Sarah asked, astonished and confused. ‘Because she’s colored,’ her mother responded....[Sarah thought] what kind of reason was that for not inviting her to Sarah’s house? So Sarah persisted, insisting that her mother tell her the real reason for her action. None was forthcoming. The indignant look on her mother’s face, however, made Sarah realize that if she persisted, she would jeopardize her mother’s affection toward her.” (Thandeka 2)
Or stories like mine. I was a timid first-grader in North Carolina when one-day, on the school bus, a big third-grader asked me if I liked President Johnson. And I shrugged. And the big kid said he didn’t like Johnson ‘cause he lets – and here he used the N word – go to our school. The look of contempt upon his face made me feel such a relief to not be the object of that contempt. I learned to be white on that day. I was whited by a system invented in this country two and a half centuries before by landowners who wanted to suppress rebellion, a system that took on a life of its own and long outlived its original purpose.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "The Spirit of Truth"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4
Audio (with slideshow) on Youtube: CLICK HERE


The Spirit of Truth, 1: The First Balm

It is a sobering and humbling thing to stand here, Sunday after Sunday, in the spirit of truth – to stand in this pulpit, my words held up by a figure which represents the Spirit of Truth. Her presence, alas, does not guarantee that what is said in this pulpit is true. But she reminds me that she’s there.

I am ever conscious that when I get up to speak to you, she will be standing before me, silently urging me, as she urges all who speak here, to speak the truth: the truth as I perceive it with integrity with all I know and all I am, the truth as I discern it responsibly. She continually reminds me of my responsibility to attend to all the evidence – the evidence of my own heart, indeed, and also the objective data which sometimes contradicts the conclusions to which my heart leaps.

I have, I am sure, failed her – through overreach and through underreach, in ways that I cannot now see, most of which I will probably never see. Yet there she is, steadfast and constant in her support of whosoever would address this Community Unitarian Church.

According to our historical records, this pulpit has been at this congregation for 90 years. Ever since 1925, this Spirit of Truth has stood encouragingly, bearing the load of the messages of this congregation’s six settled ministers, all the interim ministers, the ministerial interns, the guest ministers, and a long, long list of guest speakers and lay members who have spoken here.

On this Martin Luther King Day weekend, as we celebrate what would have been Dr. King’s 86th birthday, it is particularly pertinent to remember the urgings of the Spirit of Truth. Race-based distrust, prejudice, and bigotry continues to bedevil and rive our nation. Our world, too – but I must say especially our nation. The ways we lie to ourselves and each other, the ways we are in denial, place us in sore need of the Spirit of Truth. The first balm for the wounds of division is truth. The bandages of programs, the splints of institutions, and the sutures of social justice will fail without the salve of truth – the awareness of what is so, shared knowledge of how things are.

Let us begin with the truth about our history, for that will help us understand why racial harmony is so particularly difficult for this country. America did not invent prejudice, or discrimination against people that, in any physical way including skin color, looked different. But we did invent the modern conception of race, and the racism based upon that conception. By the Spirit of Truth, let us understand where this conception comes from.

The word “race” used to mean any other group of people. If you lived in northern France, the people a couple hundred miles south of you were a southerly race. Protestants referred to the Catholic race, and vice-versa. Nobles spoke of the peasant race. The emergence of the modern sense of race was a deliberate device of the wealthy landowners in the colonies in the 1600s.

Much of the manual agricultural labor of the colonies, at first was done by what we would now call white indentured servants. (But in many cases were full-out slaves. See HERE for a chilling account of the English enslavement of the Irish.) England’s anti-poverty program of the time was to make poverty a crime punishable by deportation to America essentially as slave, but with the provision for earning one’s freedom after 10 or 20 or sometimes as much as 30 years of labor. From what we can tell, when African slaves began showing up to work beside them in the field, the darker skin color aroused no particular animosity. Whether you had paler skin or darker skin, you were kept in separate quarters, supervised by an overseer, whipped as a means of “correction,” often underfed and underclothed, and stereotyped as vile and brutish and subhuman.

The two groups, both despised objects of the contempt of the bourgeoisie, saw each other as sharing the same predicament. As historian Edmund Morgan notes:
“It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together.” (American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, 1975, p. 327)
And sometimes European servants combined with African slaves to rebel against the ruling elite.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "The Spirit of Truth"
See also
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Audio (with slideshow) on Youtube: CLICK HERE


This Week's Prayer

Heart of compassion:

Manifest in our lives – in our thoughts, in our words, and in the work of our hands.

We ask you, which is to say we ask ourselves, to be more welcoming and understanding toward others to reduce the suffering in our world.

So many suffer in Haiti, Burma, South Sudan, Ukraine, and Palestine.

Heart of compassion, teach us the way of hospitality, welcome, and unity.

Even as the people of France continue to react to the killings in Paris, help us to hold in mind and heart our many Muslim siblings who also grieve at the senselessness of the actions of a few.

Heart of compassion, we ask you, who are our own best selves, for peace in our lives and in our world.

Teach us and guide us to be builders of a tolerant and nonviolent world.

Heart of compassion, we ask for wisdom to listen to nature and be diligent in our care and stewardship of this beloved planet.

Even as moneyed interests dismiss the facts of climate change, we learn that 2014 was the hottest year on record.

All ten of the ten hottest years have occurred since 1997.

A study this week concludes that humans are on the verge of causing unprecedented damage to the oceans and the animals living in them.

Heart of compassion, we ask to be ever mindful of the modern prophets who have called us to
nonviolence and inclusion, to justice for all people.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. still speaks to us. May we listen.

We ask for the strength to likewise give our lives to the cause of freedom.

Heart of compassion, manifest in our lives – in our thoughts, in our words, and in the work of our hands.


Addendum: Income Inequality and Political Polarization

On Tue Jan 13, The Liberal Pulpit posted this graph:

The graph shows how one of the effects of rising inequality of income is a polarizing of our political system. Or vice-versa. "House polarization" is a measure of the internal homogeneity (low diversity of viewpoint) among House Democrats and among House Republicans, and the ideological gap between an average House Democrat and an average House Republican.

The Gini Index (or Gini coefficient) was developed by the Italian statistician and sociologist, Corrado Gini in 1912. It measures equality or inequality of distribution. The Gini coefficient ranges from 0 (where every person has exactly the same income) to 1 (where one person has all the income there is, and everyone else gets none).

Getting the Gini index and the House polarization index to map so neatly onto each other is, of course, partly a matter of adjusting the graph's two scales to get the best match. But that's not all there is to it. However we  set the scales, we're going to see both the Gini and the polarization indices going sharply up since the late 70s -- and every 0.1 increase on the polarization index corresponds to about a 0.017 increase on the Gini index.

Growing inequality of income tends to encourage political polarization -- while political polarization leads to policies that further widen the gap between the rich and the poor. How do we break out of this vicious cycle?

For example. In 2012, six-term Indiana Senator Richard Lugar and three-term Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, both Republicans, lost in their party's primaries to tea-party hardliners. Lugar and Snowe were dealmakers within the Republican party, willing to work with Democrats to compromise rather than effect gridlock by standing firm on ideological principles. Our political polarization continues to worsen.

Paul Krugman (click here), makes the point that:
If something like the financial crisis of 2008 had occurred in, say, 1971,...Washington would probably have responded fairly effectively. There would have been a broad bipartisan consensus in favor of strong action, and there would also have been wide agreement about what kind of action was needed. But that was then. Today, Washington is marked by a combination of bitter partisanship and intellectual confusion — and both are, I would argue, largely the result of extreme income inequality. ("Plutocracy, Paralysis, Perplexity," New York Times, 2012 May 3
Growing polarization makes it increasingly difficult for either side to see a distinction between the national interest and its own partisan triumph -- though Krugman finds that it is the Republicans who have become especially unable to see such a distinction.
For the past century, political polarization has closely tracked income inequality, and there’s every reason to believe that the relationship is causal. Specifically, money buys power, and the increasing wealth of a tiny minority has effectively bought the allegiance of one of our two major political parties, in the process destroying any prospect for cooperation.
Our country has managed to break out of this vicious cycle before. The graph above starts in 1947. Let's look further back to 1879:

We have had high levels of polarization before. From 1879 until the mid-1920s political polarization was about where it is now -- and income inequality was similarly high then. How did we break out of the vicious cycle before?

Let's remember our history. The constitutional amendment allowing a federal income tax was passed in 1916. Oh, and look -- that's about when the trend toward decreased polarization began. Factors that plausibly facilitated the continuation of that trend include the crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression, the creation of Social Security and a slew of other safety net programs under FDR, and World War II.

With a return to the income tax rates we had in the 50s and 60s and renewed commitment to social safety net programs, maybe this time we can skip the need for a World War. But, dear and gentle reader, we will not get those policy changes without a spiritual shift toward greater connectedness with our neighbors.

To break the vicious cycle of domestic abuse generation after generation requires intentional work at counseling and creation of social structures of accountability. To break the vicious cycle whereby inequality fosters polarization which fosters further inequality will require a similar intervention of intentional creation of habits of building connection, and being accountable to one another for doing so.


Equality is Good for Us

If I’m poor, and I’m going to be poor anyway, how does it hurt me if you’re rich? That seems like a reasonable question. I might not know how to articulate the answer, but if I’m poor, and you are, too, then I can feel like we’re in this together. I have a sense of common cause with you. We may not have much, be we’ve got each other.

Societies with low inequality (the ratio of the income of the top 20 percent to the income of the bottom 20 percent is less than 5) maintain some shared assumptions about wealth and about each other. Roughly, the attitude is like this:
If there are somewhat wealthier folks among us, that’s OK. I can accept that some people are luckier, or more skillful at work that society prizes, or they’re more driven to work hard, and they end up wealthier. The relatively wealthy serve as a reminder to me of what good schooling and hard work and a little luck might make available to my children. If the town doctor has a bigger house on a hill, that’s OK – he’s smart and had a lot of training, and he’s using that to help us when we get sick, so more power to him. Maybe my kid can get a scholarship and be a doctor.
If, however, the rich-poor gap grows too large, that attitude loses purchase. In fact, in the US today, that kind of outlook is quaint -- an echo of a bygone time. Few, it seems, think like that anymore. The ones at the bottom and middle can no longer see the wealth of the ones at the top as either attainable or deserved.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here?
A relatively equal society is able to sustain a shared understanding among its members. But if, as in the U.S., the ratio of the income of the top 20 percent to the income of the bottom 20 percent is 8 or 9, there’s a disconnect. We lose the shared understanding of the legitimacy of things. The wealthy are beyond attainability, beyond any credible story of deservingness. We lose the sense that we’re in this together. The wealthy become “them.” And "they" don’t care about "us" -- so we don’t care about them. Anomie and division set in; anger and alienation become the social mood.

Sensing the resentment of most of society, the wealthy, in turn, retreat behind gated communities, which further increases the disconnect. We begin to believe the game is rigged; we don’t have a chance. When we believe that, we become more likely to behave in ways that make that a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rich and poor alike feel the division, the disconnect. The result is higher levels of depression, higher levels of consuming things that aren’t good for us: from drugs to alcohol to junk food to mindless TV shows to mindless consumer products. Our spirits are not whole when inequality is so massive – and our spirits long to be made whole.

Equality has benefits that show up all over. They show up, for example, on baseball teams.
“A well-controlled study of over 1,600 players in 29 teams over a nine-year period found that major league baseball teams with smaller income differences among players do significantly better than the more unequal teams.” (Wilkinson and Picket, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, 237).
When people feel like they stand on equal footing with their neighbors or teammates, there’s a cohesion that lifts spirits, heals wounds, and improves performance.

High levels of social inequality destroy the basic grounding for that community and connection. For the U.S. to make progress in rolling back the inequalities that have been growing since 1980, some combination of income caps, higher minimum wage, and a more progressive tax structure might be a good start.

Unitarian Universalists care about our world. And it’s clear now that “further improvements in the quality of life no longer depend on further economic growth. The issue is now community and how we relate to each other.” The issue is not only at the economic level but at the spirit level.
"Come spirit, come. Our heart’s control. Our spirits long to be made whole."
* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Income Inequality"
See also:
Part 1: Deconstructing the Mango Pop
Part 2: It's Getting Worse
Part 3: Inequality Harms Social Health


Inequality Harms Social Health

There are various ways to measure inequality: We can compare the top X% to the bottom Y% for any X and any Y. And all the measures very closely correspond with each other, so it doesn’t matter much which one we use. One very common measure is the ratio of the top 20 percent to the bottom 20 percent, so let’s use that one.

In Japan and four Scandinavian countries (combined), the top 20 percent bring about four times what the bottom 20 percent earn. The ratio is between 3.4 to 1 and 4.3 to 1. In the US, the ratio is 8.5 to 1 -- meaning the top 20 percent get eight-and-a half times what the bottom 20 percent get. Singapore's inequality is even higher: the ratio there is 9.7 to 1.

As a people of faith and compassion, we care about our world. We take in the wonder of this world, and we also take in the brokenness we see, and ask, “What happened?”

Let’s talk about social health. Let us define "social health" the way that researchers do, as an amalgam of ten factors. The lower the rates of:
  • homicides
  • obesity
  • teenage births
  • infant mortality
  • imprisonment rates
  • mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction),
and the higher the rates of:
  • life expectancy
  • children’s educational performance
  • social mobility
  • level of trust,
then the higher a nation's social health.

That's a pretty good way to define social health. You might think of some other factors that would be important. For instance, I might imagine that "high teacher salaries," "high number of bookstores per capita," or "low proportion of the population who are lawyers" might be part of a healthy society, but that might be controversial. People of all political persuasions will pretty much agree that homicides, obesity, teenage births, infant mortality, high imprison rates, and mental illness are bad, that high life expectancy, children's educational performance, social mobility, and level of trust are good, and that all these are relevant to the health of a society.

With a definition of social health thus nailed down, researchers have then found that a country’s wealth does not correlate with its social health. A country may be rich, medium, poor, or extremely poor (less than $9,000 per person per year). Except in extremely poor nations, more wealth has no effect on social health. Equality, however, does correlate with social health.

Countries with high inequality, whether rich or poor, have low social health. Countries with low inequality, whether rich or poor, have high social health.

The US is quite wealthy. Annual national income is around $38,000 per person. But on the measure of social health we’re doing worse than most countries that have only half that much per-person income. After meeting a certain minimum, more wealth doesn’t do us any good. Equality does. In statisticians' terms, it’s not the mean income that matters, it’s the standard deviation.

Remember that ratio of the top 20% to the bottom 20%. If that ratio, in a given country, is 4 or 5, then social health is going to be pretty good in that country. If that ratio is 8 or 9, then that country’s social health tends to be worse.

The US is wealthy and Portugal is poor -- yet they both have high ratios (8.5 and 8.0) and low social health. Norway, however, which has about as much per capita wealth as the US, has a low ratio (3.9) and high social health.

Social health means a better quality of life for all of us. All of us. Even the rich. The quality of life of the top 1% -- or, indeed, the top 20% -- cannot be improved with any more money. Their quality of life can, however, be improved with greater equality and thus greater social health in the society in which they find themselves.
“The evidence shows that reducing inequality is the best way of improving the quality of the social environment, and so the real quality of life, for all of us . . . this includes the better off.” (Wilkinson and Picket, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger)
* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Income Inequality"
See also:
Part 1: Deconstructing the Mango Pop
Part 2: It's Getting Worse
Part 4: Equality Is Good for Us


It's Getting Worse

Societally, when inequality becomes great, we lose the sense of community, lose the sense that we’re all in this together.

We’ve been seeing some pretty drastic changes in the last 35 years – since 1980. In 1980, eight percent of the nation’s total income was earned by the top one percent. The richest one percent of people got eight percent of the income. Eight times the average income would seem to be plenty. Who could want more than that? Surely that’s more than enough. But in 2011, the richest one percent brought home 20 percent of all income.

Starting in the early 20th century and continuing through the middle decades of the century, the trend in this country was toward steadily improving income equality. The gap between the top and the average of everybody else was shrinking. Then that trend reversed.

Our spirits long to be made whole, to be connected to each other on this wonderful world we share – to be connected with equals as equals. I don’t mean that we all have to have exactly the same income, but when the inequalities get this bad, it has a corrosive effect on the social contract, and on our souls as a people.
“Consider executive pay. During the 1950s and 60s, CEOs of major American companies took home about 25 to 30 times the wages of the typical worker....In 1980, the big-company CEO took home roughly 40 times. By 1990 it was 100 times. By 2007,...CEO pay packages had ballooned to about 350 times what the typical worker earned.” (Robert Reich)
Even if you think inequality by itself isn’t our business, wouldn’t you want to know what’s going on to make it get so much worse?

Various studies in various ways show that when inequality is greater, violence goes up, trust goes down. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket write in their illuminating study, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger:
“At the pinnacle of human material and technical achievement, we find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume, and with little or no community life.”
All of those conditions of modern life -- anxiety, depression, unsure friendship, consumerism, lack of community -- are connected with inequality – either as cause or as result, and often partly both. Wilkinson and Picket go on to write:
“The unease we feel about the loss of social values and the way we are drawn into the pursuit of material gain is often experienced as if it were a purely private ambivalence which cuts us off from others....As voters, we have lost sight of any collective belief that society could be different. Instead of a better society, the only thing almost everyone strives for is to better their own position – as individuals – within the existing society.” (4)
When we're all in it for only ourselves, there's increased political polarization.

Gini Index is a measure of income inequality. When it goes up, political polarization goes up.

This is not a life of spiritual wholeness.

When you compare nation to nation, there’s no correlation between wealth and life expectancy or mortality. No correlation. Rich countries have about the same life expectancies and mortality rates as relatively poor countries, until you get into the really poor end of the spectrum. As long as a nation has per-person income above about $9,000 a year, further increases do nothing to increase life expectancy. That’s the nation-to-nation comparison.

But when we do a zip code to zip code comparison, we get a different picture. The poorer zip codes have higher mortality than the richer zip codes.

If you took several of the poorest zip codes, created a new island in the Pacific, put them all there, maintained their per-person incomes as they were, made a new island nation of them, they’d have decreased mortality. They’d be fine. But because they live near the wealthier areas, they perceive that difference. They see all around them the inescapable fact that they live in a society that is set up to work for others, but not for them. They are reminded daily that they are not in a society of mutual care.

And that wears them down much more than relative material deprivation.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Income Inequality"
See also:
Part 1: Deconstructing the Mango Pop
Part 3: Inequality Harms Social Health
Part 4: Equality Is Good for Us


Deconstructing the Mango Pop

"Come spirit come. Our hearts control. Our spirits long to be made whole."
The delegates at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly last June voted to select a new Study/Action issue. We select only one such issue every two years. The issue selected was “escalating inequality,” thereby urging UU congregations to make it topic of concern and engage it, reflect on it, learn about it, respond to it, comment on it, and take action—each in their own way. So let us reflect.

The great catcher for the New York Yankees, Yogi Bierra, got his start in the minor leagues. Once, the team bus was winding its way through the hinterlands looking for some small town where the team was due to play. Yogi was studying the road map. He looked at his watch. "We're lost," he announced. "But we're making good time."

Our economy for the last 75 years -- the recent recession notwithstanding – has been making good time. But we got lost. We took a wrong turn when we decided that the measure of how well we’re doing is our total wealth rather than how it is distributed. We take a wrong turn every time we look at our national mean per capita income, or mean per capita spending, or mean per capita productivity, but don’t look at the standard deviation, don't look at the growing gaps between us and how that gap corrodes our common life.

There is an argument that we should be concerned with poverty, but not with inequality. It’s our business as a society to make sure that everybody has enough, but not our business how much more than enough the rich have. Comedian Louis C.K.’s illustrates that point. In one episode of his show, Louis is making dinner. There’s an extra slice of mango, which he gives to his older daughter, Lilly, and goes back to making dinner. The younger daughter, Jane, appears and says, “Can I have a mango pop?”

Louis says, "There was only one." Jane says, "Why does she get one and not me? It’s not fair."

Louie squats down to be face-to-face with his daughter at her level. He says, “Listen. The only time you should look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to see if you have as much as them.”

That sounds wise and mature. Envy, after all, is one of the seven deadly sins, right?

Here’s the thing. What we want is to care and be cared for. We want to be in relations of mutual care. We weren’t built to keep caring and caring if others just take advantage of us, use us, and care nothing for us in return. That’s not healthy. We need to care – and we also need some level of mutuality and reciprocity. Reciprocation need not be exact – we don’t keep score – we just need some sign that caring about each other does go both ways.

When Jane asks for a mango pop because her sister has one, it’s not about the mango pop. That’s just a symbol to test whether she’s being held in a relation of mutual care. I don't see envy going on here -- though over time, if Jane is systematically excluded from the full participation in the family's circle of care, envy might emerge. In the moment, I simply see a little girl who needs affirmation that she counts. If she gets it when she needs it when she's young, as she gets older she won't need that affirmation as immediately. She'll begin to see that, as her father says (see the full clip, below), sometimes her sister is the luckier one, and sometimes she is, and over the longer term, it balances out.

Right now, Jane's developmental stage requires a more immediate "evening of the score." Our fairness needs gets looser as we mature, but we retain them in some form. We have a need to be in relations of mutual care. And when that need is not met, it makes anxiety, depression, and social alienation more likely.

This segment from Louis C.K.'s show has been getting attention on the blogosphere and in social media. Most of that attention has focused on what a great lesson Louis offers when he says "The only time you should look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure they have enough." And that is a lovely ideal. It's worth saying even though Jane is not at a developmental stage to hear it right now. (Which is OK -- if the lesson is repeated regularly, she'll remember it when she is ready to hear it -- though, really, how many of us ever become spiritually advanced enough to truly follow that lesson?) For me, though, the greater wisdom comes a moment later, when Louis accedes to Jane's plea for fairness, grants Jane some "calcium chocolate" -- and adds, thus reinforcing the very need for fairness Jane was expressing, "make sure your sister gets one, too." So now Lilly gets a mango pop AND a calcium chocolate while Jane gets only a calcium chocolate. But that's OK. Jane's happy with that because she doesn't need precise score-keeping. She just needs to know her Dad cares about her, too.

There’s a joke about a mother explaining to a little boy, "We are here to care for others."
The little boy says, "What are the others here for?"

The answer, of course, is, we’re all here to care for each other.

It does me good to care for others, and part of that caring is wanting them to also have the good of caring for others – which, for them, includes me. Systems of mutual care are good for all of us -- not just because we all get cared for, but because we all have opportunities for the joy of caring for others.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Income Inequality"
See also:
Part 2: It's Getting Worse
Part 3: Inequality Harms Social Health
Part 4: Equality Is Good for Us


This Week's Prayer

Source of healing and wholeness we call by many names:

The rich and the poor have this in common: on this pale blue dot, we are all passing wisps of bone and hope. Let us not lose an instant of this brief chance to be present.

Let the yearning of our heart be spoken, made conscious, and guide our actions.

We want the compassion to comfort the afflicted. We want the courage to afflict the comfortable. Everyone we meet is both: afflicted by something that bothers them and complacent about something about which they could be bothering. We want the wisdom to respond skillfully to both. We want the grace and love that will make us brighter lights in the darkness.

We remember and celebrate with same-sex couples in Florida which this week became the 36th state to afford civil recognition to their marriages.

The police slowdown in New York City weighs on our minds. It is difficult to know what to make of it. Many fewer citations are now being given for the sort of infractions for which, in the last decade, 80 percent of those penalized were black or Latino. Many officers are trustworthy and fair. We yearn for a police force in which many more of them are.

We remember today the lives of those displaced across the Middle East.

We remember the dead, massacred at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris.

We remember the teachers and educators in northern Nigeria, Afghanistan and Somalia in their challenge to provide education and to make a difference in lives lived in extreme conditions.

As winter descends in earnest, we remember those at risk in the cold.

So may compassion and wisdom guide our words and actions to make of us more effective agents of care.


Service to Transform 4

There remains much to do. Most of the gains we've seen in recent decades (such as worldwide reductions in extreme poverty, hunger, child labor, child mortality -- and increases in life-expectancy, literacy, and democracy) will turn around if the climate change trend is allowed to continue and droughts, floods, and rising sea levels lead to hardships and political instability.

Women’s reproductive freedom is under assault. Forty-one years ago this month, Roe v. Wade was an epic win for abortion-rights activists. We’ve been losing ever since.

2014 was also the year a lot more people began to notice how problematic it is that many of our police departments have developed a self-supporting and insular culture that teaches that no one understands police work except fellow officers; doing the job means bending the rules; the real law is the law of the jungle; and there are only two kinds of people — cops and jerks. Some departments don’t have such a culture, and some fine officers resist that message even in departments that have such a culture. Yet too often that culture plays out in unnecessary police violence against pretty much anybody – with the possible exception of white, middle-aged white-collar professionals – and disproportionately against young African American men.

There remains much to do.

What are you up for?

God knows, and I know, we’re all way too busy. We're stressed from overwork and overscheduling. Still. I see numbers that the average adult American watches more than 20 hours of live TV every week. Maybe we do have a little bit of time for justice. I know I don’t watch anywhere near that much TV, and probably many of you don't either. Still. There may be some time in the day for things we really want to do – if it energizes us and fulfills us, if it’s enriching and meaningful. More stuff that’s a drag to do and wears us out – no, we surely, indeed, do not have time for that.

Community Unitarian Church has said that engaging in service to transform ourselves and our world is what we’re here for. It’s our mission. How shall we do that?

What projects of transformation of yourself and your world would be energizing and fulfilling for you? Community Unitarian Church could:
  • Host a dinner once a month free to all in the community
  • Focus on being more welcoming and supportive of people with mental disorders.
  • Expand and strengthen our “welcoming congregation” status for LGBT folk.
  • Prepare for mobilizing in greater numbers for marches that represent UU values
  • Advocate for more community-oriented policing and reduced racial profiling
  • Address climate change and environmental justice
  • Develop a prison ministry
  • Prepare ourselves to respond to disasters
  • Explore ways to deepen our reverence for life and expand compassion to nonhuman animals
  • Get training in restorative justice and make ourselves a community resource for restoration
  • Organize support for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
  • Join Westchester United and team up with other faith organizations on issues of shared importance
  • Work closely with the local chapter of Planned Parenthood to advance access to birth control, sexuality education and information, and abortion services.
That’s just a starter list – there are many others that you might suggest.

We probably can’t do all of those things – but we could do some of them. Which ones would you be interested in being a part of?

Our theme of the month for January is Justice – and developing a plan for Social Justice is a goal this year that the CUC Board set last summer. Our Journey Groups this month on the topic of Justice will afford you more opportunity to think through what justice means to you and what direction living your Unitarian faith might take you.

In the next few months you’ll see and have chances to participate in the unfolding of a congregational plan to engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.

For we must stand on the side of love – and justice is what love looks like in public.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Service to Transform"
Previous: Part 3
Beginning: Part 1


Service to Transform 3

In the 20th century, Rev. John Haynes Holmes famously – or notoriously – led opposition to World War I. He also lived his Unitarian faith as co-founder of both the NAACP and the ACLU.

Unitarian minister, Rev. Gordon Gibson, right, with
Dr. Martin Luther King, after Gibson and a fellow
UU minister were released from jail in Selma, in
1965 after a voter registration drive
In 1965, the call went out to Unitarian ministers across the land to join Martin Luther King in his march from Selma. At least one-fifth of them set aside their busy schedules and went to Alabama to do that. And some of those who stayed home did so because they were lead organizers in the parallel marches for civil rights in their own cities at the same time. Our Rev. James Reeb was beaten to death by white thugs at in Selma. Viola Liuzzo was fatally shot as she participated in the demonstration. These Unitarians lived their faith, and died for it.

Nationally prominent civil rights leader Whitney Young was a member of Community Unitarian Church at White Plains, worshipping on Sundays in the sanctuary in which we continue to gather and worship today. Sometimes activist values lead a person to become a Unitarian, and sometimes Unitarian values lead a person to become an activist. Often it’s a little of both. Whitney Young was speaking a religious truth of his Unitarian faith when he said:
"Every person is our brother or sister, and every one’s burden is our own. Where poverty exists, all are poorer. Where hate flourishes, all are corrupted. Where injustice reins, all are unequal."
Whitney Young on cover of Time in 1967
I cannot brag about our participation in Selma and in the civil rights movement generally without also mentioning the conflict that rived our General Assemblies in 1968 and 1969 where black and white Unitarian Universalists were torn apart over how best to address racism. We are a people who so want to do what is right, but we are not without our own blindspots – then and now.

I remember the 70s as a time when our congregations were active in the anti-Vietnam war effort, and in organizing support for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Our churches have been at the lead in the effort to end LGBT discrimination. A few of our churches and ministers were quietly performing same-sex ceremonies of union as far back as the 50s. By the 70s, more of our churches were doing that, and more publicly. Eventually, we stopped calling them ceremonies of union and started calling them marriages – distinguishing civil from religious marriage and proclaiming that civil marriage is a civil right, religious marriage is a religious choice. In 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Court made that state the first to civilly recognize same-sex marriage. In that case, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the lead plaintiff, Hillary Goodridge, her partner Julie, and a total of seven of the 14 plaintiffs were Unitarians living their faith.

Our Standing on the Side of Love campaign was begun in 2008 following the hate-motivated shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist church that killed two and wounded several others. It’s a campaign that has focused on issues where the national discourse is most distorted by hatred. Through this campaign, Unitarian Universalists, wearing the distinctive yellow shirts, stand on the side of love with immigrant families, with LGBT folk – and, more recently, African American communities subjected to police abuse.

Let us remember who we are as Unitarian Universalists. We are a people of activism. We are here, Unitarian Universalists gathering week after week, in order to nurture our spirits and help heal our world, for we have discovered that those are not two separate things but that each reinforces the other. We help heal our world by nurturing our spirits, and nurture our spirits by helping to heal our world.

I told a little of the story of me, and some of the story of us. Let us turn to the story of Now. How do things stand?

A lot of things are getting better. Worldwide in the last 25 years we’ve seen worldwide extreme poverty (living on less than $1.25 a day), the Global Hunger Index (a measure of undernutrition), child labor, child mortality, maternal mortality in childbirth are all substantially down and life expectancy is up by about 9 years in low-income countries. More people are going to school for longer, and literacy rates are up. More and more countries are democracies.

War is actually on the decline. Steven Pinker writes,
"The rate of documented direct deaths from political violence (war, terrorism, genocide and warlord militias) in the past decade is an unprecedented few hundredths of a percentage point."
World stockpiles of nuclear weapons peaked in 1986 and have sharply declined.

In the US, homicides, violent crimes, teen births, smoking, the unsheltered homeless population are all down.

2014 was quite the banner year for marriage equality. The District of Columbia and 35 states now recognize same-sex marriages – up from 16 states one year ago -- and Florida will become number 36 on Tuesday.

And there remains much to do.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Service to Transform"
Next: Part 4
Previous: Part 2
Beginning: Part 1