Guest sermon text: “And in society at large.” (9/14/14)

I was asked to give a guest sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto when the parish minister was at the church summer retreat. There was no set topic, so I decided to write about Principle Five of the Seven Principles. Essentially, I ask what Principle Five really asks of us, and argues the need to promote economic democracy, socialism, worker control, whatever you’d like to call it. Given September 14, 2014.

“And in society at large.”
Andrew J. Mackay

Should you have time to do some real, intense, dedicated pondering, the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism is dynamite daydream material. They represent the foundation of a moral philosophy; ourselves, our church, our societies emerge from that foundation. This morning I’m going to take one principle and explore its meaning and potential.

Principle Five recognizes that the community supports “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Those last five words- “and in society at large.” It is not a specific checklist. Rather, it urges us to evaluate the whole interdependent web of existence that we find ourselves a part of. That phrase compels us to dream big. Envision a world nourished by the roots of democratic freedom.

As a sociology student, the definition of society is important. To dive into Principle Five requires us to define our terms. Without clarity of language this journey would be like an astronomer trying to study the planet Saturn without knowing where it is or what it looks like. [pause] The word comes from the Latin socius, which can be translated as “companion” or “ally”. Society binds people together in friendship and trust. Hopefully, it should rest on our humanity and common feeling. Author Anat Shenker-Osorio wrote in 2010 “The belief that we are all competing with each other for scarce resources, that life is by nature a zero-sum game, ignores critical truths that rightly deserve the designation of ‘natural law’. Humans are a social species. We are pack animals; we like to be together lots of the time. Some of our greatest joys and oldest cultural practices involve sharing: our homes with a stranger, bread and wine with friends, material goods with our families.” The aspect of our lives where zero-sum thinking dominates, to the detriment of many, is the structure and culture of the economic system.

Large business pursues optimal profits, with much collateral damage. Chemicals spill into the West Virginia water supply, jobs are moved from Ohio and Illinois overseas, retail workers are not given enough hours to qualify for full-time benefits. We are a part of the economy, the reason it exists, yet often we feel helpless and swept up in something beyond our control. This economic power then influences our political democracy. UUs for years have been working against the influence of money on politics, so the danger is well-known. Politicians driven by business interest cash often ignore their constituents. According to an October 2013 poll, Americans held a higher opinion of the DMV, hemorrhoids, and cockroaches than Congress. I am 24 years old and gridlock, both in this state and in Washington, seems natural.

In society at large, everything is interrelated. If one aspect lacks accountability and popular control, it will harm the others. Without addressing core issues, attempts to build a better world will be undermined. There exist many proposed solutions for a more just economy, from the general public and UUs in particular.

Much of today’s activism is built around making large businesses yield to the popular will. Some of you may get email newsletters asking you to sign a petition against Wal-Mart, or Exxon-Mobil. Bad behavior! Environmental waste! Corruption! Send them a message! It is a demand, we want a say, this can’t continue. At this year’s General Assembly, a high-profile resolution was passed, moving to divest from fossil fuel conglomerates. Our UU community aims to use economic power to create a sustainable society. Divestment is often linked with boycotts and sanctions to make corporations and whole states change their ways. California was host to the Delano grape boycott in the 1960s, where popular will forced powerful agricultural interests to stop exploiting migrant farm workers. Worldwide action punished South Africa economically for its vile system of apartheid.

This all points to a desire for more democratic control in the American economic system, by workers of a particular business, and the general public who must deal with the fallout of business decisions. Both groups, employees and the communities they live in, must deal with the trauma of outsourcing, cuts to wages and benefits, and disregard for the environment. In a lifetime, the average American will spend 90,000 hours at work, but the typical worker has no say in how her company is run. Unions increase worker power, but their scope is limited, and less than 7% of private sector workers belong to one. The public company is run by a small board of directors and a small set of principal shareholders, who often are the same people. The UUA is part of an interfaith group that buys shares in companies to create pressure for reform. Such efforts can only go so far- corporate stock gives disproportionate power to holders of special types of shares. And the reality is that promoting economic justice may mean cutting profits and endangering stock price. Working within the system where profits are expected to increase indefinitely means calls for justice may go unheard.

The world of privately-held companies lack any internal accountability. In the US, the largest private companies have $1.8 trillion in annual revenue and employ 6.2 million people. Their work can be damaging to humans and the environment. The two largest private companies in the country are Cargill, which sells palm oil and soybeans from areas that used to be rainforest, and the petroleum multinational Koch Industries.

Not to despair. The world of today has never been inevitable. There is a place for the democratic process in the economy. Some existing businesses show a different way of doing business. There are cooperatives all around us, where workers and consumers get a say. Credit unions in America serve 44% of the economically-active population. They are community not-for-profit organizations, where account holders are the owners and elect their leadership. To have a say in a large banking chain, you need to purchase quite a lot of stock. You are not a part-owner of Wells Fargo or Bank of America just because you opened up a checking account. You are not consulted on their business decisions. Credit unions and other cooperatives are owned and run by the community, and their decisions by nature factor in the human element. The Manhattan board of a large bank doesn’t have to consider the effect of foreclosures or high interest loans on a small community. A local credit union does; the leadership and ownership live in the community, and must personally deal with the fallout of destructive policy.

In the past year I’ve learned of an idea created by credit unions that shows the value of a democratic, community-run mindset. Several states now allow a contest called save-to-win. Most states have a lottery, with big prizes and lots of advertising. Lotteries are played by the poorest Americans, and few ever win. It is in some sense a poverty tax, where people are exploited by their hope for a better life. Save-to-win is simple: for every $25 put into a savings account, you get a raffle ticket for a drawing at the end of the week, or month, or year. It has created the excitement of a regular lottery, while increasing the savings of poor Americans. People are excited and motivated to save for their future. Credit unions have created a lottery where you can’t lose. This is a part of a society of companions and allies. There is more than the zero-sum, everyone can win and thrive.

Cooperatives go beyond the local credit union or organic food mart. The Mondragon Corporation in the Basque region of Spain is a diverse organization with many cooperatives, divided into finance, industry, retail, and knowledge. They employ 74,000 people, and by company rule, no person can make more than 8 1/2 times the lowest-paid worker. In a country still devastated by the credit bubble, Mondragon has stayed strong.

The economist Richard Wolff, who you may have spotted on Moyers and Company or Charlie Rose, has crafted an initiative called “Democracy at Work”, where businesses can be created that are self-directed by workers. A few years ago I saw him speak in Berkeley, and his words were invigorating. The framework for democracy in the economy, that largest component of “society at large” exists. There are realistic solutions. It is a matter of will.

If companies were run by the workers, would their jobs and factories would have all been moved overseas? Or would they have taken initiative, and made the enterprise work here, whatever it took? Would a worker-run factory pollute the groundwater, when the leadership would have to come home and drink it? When we send petitions, or move our money, or boycott a company, we are demanding accountability. The best way to make the economy accountable to the people is to make the people accountable for the economy.

In Matthew 21:12-13, Jesus finds the Temple of Jerusalem filled with money-changers and vendors. The money-changers were turning the currency of poor pilgrims into a special temple scrip, at a large markup. This system still haunts us today, though instead of temple cash it is called Disney Dollars, and the pilgrims have been replaced with sunburned tourists. Jesus is furious of this exploitation. He flips the tables over and drives the lot out with a lash. As they leave, he shouts “It is written . .  ‘My house will be called a house of prayer . . . but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’ It is rare that we see Christ in such a fiery temper. Something about the operation of the Temple made him livid. He did not admonish the money-changers, and he certainly did not simply forgive their misdeeds. He flipped a table. A popular meme three years ago had a painting of the scene with the caption “The First Occupy Wall Street.”

The scene shows the importance of sacred places and sacred institutions. The Temple is the holiest place for the Jewish people, and it was being sullied by profiteering. Perhaps some things should be above profit. Our political democracy today is built upon profit, as special interest cash creates a skewed set of priorities for elected officials. We have our own secular temples, that we cherish and treat with special care, and perhaps the moneyed interests need to be driven from those places too. The best way to achieve democracy, a deep and encompassing democracy, is to change the way money is spent and businesses are run.

The 17th of September will mark the third anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. If nothing else, the movement sought to link the economic power of the 1% with its political power and influence. The question of why Congress is less popular than cockroaches has a complicated answer, but money has certainly steered it to this point. When myself and fellow members of Occupy San Jose handed out flyers on how to join a credit union, and picketed banks, and along with local non-profits encouraged churches and small businesses to divest from large banks who were foreclosing on houses in their community, we had an idea that there may exist a better way of doing things. Perhaps there is a place for democracy in society at large.

The lone woman: standing outside the UU liberal consensus

SEVERAL years ago, I attended the “morning forum” at my local UU congregation. It was a current events discussion group that started a half-hour before the first service.

It was the end of the year, and by then a standard topic was a year-end review for President Obama. There were about twenty people in the room. Most of them were Kennedy-era liberals, with some of the older participants having grown up worshipping FDR.

The facilitator had developed a detailed handout, covering each aspect of the presidency. At the end of the session, each person gave a letter grade to the President- they were tallied on an easel.

Almost everyone gave Obama either an A or B on every segment- mostly A’s. Only one woman, along with myself, gave the President a failing grade in anything. We agreed that it was absurd to view the ever-lengthening Afghanistan conflict, or his deportation-heavy immigration policy as anything other than serious, systemic issues. Income inequality was getting worse, and the ‘recovery’ in effect at the time didn’t benefit people outside the top tax bracket.

Afterwards, it felt pretty awkward. Clearly I had intruded on people’s long-held worldviews. And as outspoken as I can be, I never dissent just to be shocking. The woman who joined my mini-protest came over. She was older than me, but a bit younger than the Kennedy-era liberals. Apparently she was often the lone critical voice in the forum, and she thanked me for keeping her company. It was clear that she was uncomfortable with the situation. But a forum is supposed to be a free discussion, and her contributions were both eloquent and well-grounded.

Two things Unitarian Universalism stands for are freedom of expression and against ignorance. But I felt a narrow political consensus gripping the forum that Sunday morning. This part of the congregation was so used to defending the president from conservative attack that they were uncomfortable with a progressive critique. Yet if the critique wasn’t there, the forum would have been fine living in a world where the President could do no wrong.

I never felt this way in a religious context. Atheist, agnostic, polytheistic, Eastern, ancient, contemporary. Congregants were always open to new religious concepts, and had often moved significantly from their previous beliefs. But there wasn’t much dynamism in politics. In many places, UUs come from well-off liberal families, and have held the same basic ideology since they were children. Like I said, the older members of the forum came from Roosevelt families, and still spoke of him in godlike terms.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion. But it wears its politics on its sleeve. I’ve written that UU politics and UU ideals do not link up. The ideals call for liberation. The politics call for institutions of injustice to behave themselves.

IN 2014, a couple of years after the forum, I gave a guest sermon at the same congregation (“And in Society at Large”, the text of which you can read here). My politics here were different, and my point of critique was systemic rather than focused on one man. But the same tension emerged. After the second service, a woman stood up during announcements. She applauded me for my sermon, but then tied it into her work she was doing- opening up the local Democratic Party office ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. At no point did I mention party politics as the solution- nor do they fit in a call for economic democracy. I felt being co-opted right in front of my eyes, in front of a group of people. I personally felt humiliated that my weeks of preparation had been twisted so quickly.

Afterwards, most people gave me pretty brief, nondescript feedback- good sermon, thought-provoking, the normal. A woman came up later, around my age, and thanked me for bringing up so many things- like cooperatives, corporate greed, and the need for workers to control their lives. She also noticed the lack of tact shown by the person advertising the Democratic Party (in a house of worship, additionally).

The woman at the forum, and the woman after the sermon were different. But they had a similarity: they were the only one. The liberal bubble was large, but there were UUs who wanted better political discourse within the church. How many people stopped attending services because of the narrow politics? How many people shut up when their fellow UUs praised an administration that had been at odds with communities of color on many occasions?

If diversity is an issue, and at every congregation I’ve been to oh god it is, politics is a real, tangible issue. I often see a politics that works and makes sense, assuming you’re white and financially stable. The Black Lives Matter resolution passed at General Assembly in Portland was fraught with conflict, essentially because the act called for prison abolition. Abolition is a step too far for mainstream liberals, but for people of color living in an age of mass incarceration, it is a cause for survival. It is great to have radical ministers and congregants offering a different way forward, but I’ve seen what happens if a church doesn’t have those people.

Or if they only have one. Always standing alone.

 

Principle Five: An invitation for radical economic democracy

I’ll be out of the state for 2 1/2 weeks starting Sunday, so full posts will be rare or non-existent. Since I’ll be headed to a scenic part of the world, I’ll take nice pictures and write as much poetry as I can.

I’ll be giving the guest sermon at my local Unitarian Universalist congregation in mid-September. Part of it is already written, there is still quite a bit of research to be done, primarily religious history reading. There are a lot of parts to tie together, which is encouraging. Ideas are not a problem, it’s just a matter of number and order.

At its core, this is a meditation on the fifth principle of Unitarian Universalism, where we triumph “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” In particular, the last five words, “in society at large” are of deep interest to me.

That is an incredibly radical statement, far more than is acknowledged. If UUs are to promote democracy in society at large, it goes far beyond traditional electoral government. In terms of time invested over a lifetime, the economic system is far more present than all the campaigns, referendums, and voting days combined. There is no way to deny that the American economic system, capitalism of a vast size and scale, is a critical part of society. In 2014, it is also undemocratic. Large firms are highly resistant to public opinion, and voting power is decided by investment- which scales with wealth. If you own stock, you have a stake in a publicly-traded company. If we are honest, everyone has a different kind of stake in the actions of these companies. Their pollution, their political donations, their treatment of workers and communities. We are socially taxed with representation.

As written, principle five is calling out for economic democracy. Meaning a system where the workers and the decision-makers were the same people. Such a shift would go beyond reform, it would ditch the economic structure and start from scratch. Not that this is unheard of- America like many other countries has a tradition of co-ops and collectives, just not on the national and international scale. The nice things about UUism is the built-in radical instinct.

The UU congregations and fellowships are aggressive with their external pressures, as divestment from fossil fuels was passed at the General Assembly this year. Boycotts have been used in the past and should continue against anti-LGBT and anti-union organizations. Social change often requires economic change- in the case of the Civil Rights Movement desegregation applied not only to public schools, but the private enterprise of Southern society.

The core structure of a traditional enterprise is oligarchical, where the board that regulates the executive often share members. I’m trying to dig down into the religious history of opposing economic elites and keeping certain things beyond the reach of money. Driving the money changers out of the Temple and driving the insurance companies away from healthcare are moving on the same axis. Part of true democracy is keeping the political, electoral democracy strong and robust.

So it’s interesting working through the whole issue. What is the democratic process? Different countries have different methods of voting and different political cultures. What is society at large? What does that exclude? Individual conscience and collective will are often in conflict, that is another dicey subject.

This is the beauty and the madness of the seven principles. Each covers a vast swath of belief and conviction. The madness is the vagueness, but the beauty is that you can get lost in each one and test the limits of your mind and soul. When I give my sermon in two months there will be those that accept my definitions and implications, and those that don’t. Our parish minister has to deal with that with every sermon she makes.

Never before have such a project been put before me. Public speaking is one matter, a matter I’m comfortable with. Context is important, though. This is like a final project presentation, but instead of competing for points I’m searching for engagement and understanding. I’m excited, and hope it will be a chance for personal growth and contribute to the growth of the congregation at large.