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.

From a college UU: value people, not brands

Yesterday in the weekly meeting for Unitarian Universalist students on campus, our service leader gave us definitions of “personal brand.” The discussion was interesting, but I felt nobody delved into how much conflict exists between the concept of a “personal brand” and a UU worldview. Since there wasn’t a good opportunity to explore my feelings then, I’m writing a response now.

Personal branding is emphasized in business circles, particularly among entrepreneurs. Just like with a traditional brand, participants attempt to broadcast a positive portrait of themselves, that uses whatever skills and resources they have. The idea, in theory, is to have a unique profile that makes you special.

Advocates of this process say that everything you do contributes to personal brand- education, work, choices regarding romance and children. One definition says that you need to define what you really find important.

But here’s the short-circuit. One thing you can value is not being bound by business concepts like brands. Thinking of people as brands is profoundly dehumanizing, and conflates personal identity with capitalist practice. Personal identity is broken up into quantifiable traits, because brands have no need for intangibles. “Value” is given a crass, narrow definition. Emphasis on personal branding- where everything, not just work-related, is crucial- fundamentally clashes with a spiritually fulfilling life. American capitalism is many things, but it is not a very spiritual realm.

It is depressing to read my life trajectory described in five-dollar word business speak. To bring up personal branding is important- I think UU young adult groups should discuss it since it’s ever-present in the adult world- but not with a starting assumption that it’s a positive thing. That needs to be proven. Forbes is not the arbiter of what principles we should hold.

Uniqueness is an empowering trait, but the flip side should be considered. Thinking in terms of brands atomizes people- existing in tension with the collective. Collective experience, religious, social, and economic, is essential to existence. When we are together, concepts like equality and dignity have meaning. For me, Unitarian Universalist spaces allow refuge from a world where nearly everything has adopted a corporate mindset. The campus that we had this meeting on is in crisis because the administration has become more like corporate executives and less like public servants.

What I ask here is to think about identity, and then personal branding. To you, are they similar, or not? What unites or separates the two?

 

Unitarian Universalism has an issue: radical goals and non-radical tactics

I finally wrote a full post on this tension I’ve had since September 2014 when I gave a guest sermon. This is based on “Not my father’s religion”, published in 2007. The contradictions in what UUs promise to do in the world and the distance they’re willing to do the radical things required is difficult. As an impatient young UU this bothers me- lots of people who were 60s radicals but have now settled down and ditched the needed politics.

Here it goes.

May 28, 2015

“Nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines (and dead armadillos)”

This is not a lovely, soft sermon like many here. They are beautiful, but certain issues require a hardened tone. Do know that this is in the vein of Frederick Douglass, the greatest black orator in American history, when he told a group of Unitarian abolitionists, the UUs of their day, that he loved them all but would give them Hell for these twenty minutes.

The issue starts as the central point of “Not my father’s religion” by Reverend Doug Muder, from UU World. In it, he explains why his working-class factory worker father goes to a conservative Lutheran church, and not the one he preaches at. The article, which a masterwork of cutting through assumptions and stereotypes, comes to the conclusion that UUs have very few working-class members, and their beliefs contribute to that.

From an upper middle-class professional core, members don’t see the insecurity and danger in the world that regular laborers do, and often spend more time talking about the homeless than the near-homeless. There is always a danger of hidden elitism- when we use the term “flipping burgers” we often devalue that working at a Wendy’s is hard, unrewarding toil.

This taps into what I’d like to talk about, something that guided a 2014 guest sermon I gave called “And Society at Large”, which was about that Principle Five of the Seven Principles we cherish calls for democracy in all of society, including economic democracy. For the purposes of the sermon and the fact that “economic democracy” is a wide-ranging term, I didn’t use words like “socialism”. But the message that many got was clear- the church needs to live up to its radical talk. This is a church that, bluntly, is the radical children of the 1960s teaching a much more watered-down set of values to their own kids.

One person who sat up after the speech to make an announcement irritated me. Two things were annoying- first, she was making a regular political announcement (though I know the contradiction given my sermon) in the church sanctuary that is normally done outside. And secondly, she credited me as the inspiration to talk about how she needs everyone to go to the Democratic Party offices to work on the elections.

The biggest blow was not that I think the Democratic Party is a dead-end for the radical and religious, though I do. It’s that she took my leftist message and turned it into the kind of milquetoast liberalism that gives the Party its nickname- the graveyard of social movements. It’s the repeated appropriation- of gay liberation, of black resistance, of the mass left-wing movements that defined the twentieth century in many places, including the United States. These groups become cogs in a party machine and lose their independence. The black American experience we are seeing with police violence is clear- some leaders have long since joined the party apparatus, and thus their criticisms have evident limits. The young insurgents that I admire so much have sometimes booed Al Sharpton off the stage, because they’re too smart to be sold on a plan that doesn’t work. Smaller groups cannot influence large machines in the way that big money and white voter issues do.

The organization I am a part of rejects the two parties and sees that the only way to gain economic democracy, egalitarian society, and all these things that by the Seven Principles we are morally obliged to strive for- is to build a working class alternative that lacks the compromises that define the two big parties. And I felt our 2013 campaign in Seattle was an example of what many UUs may one day see as necessary- a challenge to liberal Democratic politics that are too tied to businesses and interest groups to achieve change.

Running under the then-insane demand of a $15 an hour minimum wage, our candidate Kshama Sawant- an immigrant woman of color, organizer, and professor- beat him out by the slimmest of margins, winning almost 94,000 votes.

And what happens with that radical alternative. The $15 an hour wage became a reality in Seattle, and now spread to San Francisco and Los Angeles, coming soon in Chicago and Minneapolis, New York and Berkeley. A ordinance was passed to stop landlords from raising rents by more than 400% (!) to keep gentrification at bay. Homeless encampments are allowed to stay rather than broken up by police every week or so. And the new budget is the most progressive in the country, including record funding for homeless LGBT youth and looking to invest in mass transit. Currently the struggle in Seattle is over a large oil rig headed to drill in the Arctic- given the chance by the Obama administration- where hundreds of indigenous people and environmentalists block the way out with their kayaks and banners.

Idle No More indigenous activists in Canada block a highway.
Idle No More indigenous activists in Canada block a highway.

In essence, the UUs need to change their principles or change their tactics. Many UUs will support the Democratic candidate, and I understand that. But without our own political power we will never win the victories that match our moral expectations. Indeed, when Democratic clubs all over Seattle held their 2015 endorsement meetings, they all came back with an endorsement in our district of “none of the above”- since our non-Democratic candidate cannot be directly endorsed. There is a split available more than ever in recent time between the establishment and the activists.

Unitarian Universalism would benefit from class diversity, just like it would from racial diversity, and more immigrants, and other things we discuss all the time. But class diversity is not going to be gained by tabling outside union halls and pawn shops. Our ideas are great but their expression is biased in favor of the well-educated, and those in communities that are not in crisis. I don’t see how a black janitor in a community where young men are being shot in the back will find our progressive ideals right for him, because they’re never communicated in the way he might see things.

Standoff between protesters and armed police in Ferguson, Missouri. 2014.
Standoff between protesters and armed police in Ferguson, Missouri. 2014.

As the new generation, I understand that I will be on the radical fringe until I settle down, have kids, and pay dumb taxes. But since what the UU needs are people who might see my worldview as better aligned with theirs, I can’t just be flatly ignored.

We can do this. Let’s be the radical kooks that our ancestors were when they said that slavery was an abomination and rose up as whole towns to chase slave catchers out of the North. They were one moderate reformers, but they saw the Light that radical solutions were needed to serious problems. Abolition stopped being symbolic the moment it became extralegal.

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.

On the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism

I don’t know them. I know what they generally entail, having heard sermons and read them. But I don’t know them, can’t recite them, don’t know what #4 says versus #5.

In some ways this reminds me of the fact that sixty percent of Americans, which has a majority Christian population, can’t name half of the Ten Commandments. Also a fun fact

50% of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married.

Does my ignorance of what the exact definition of the seven principles make me the same as a Christian who can’t name the four gospels, or a Jew or Catholic who can’t name most of their own versions of the Ten Commandments? It’s an open question.

But the sixty percent statistic also has another side- that people from non Judeo-Christian backgrounds are likely equally if not more ignorant of teachings within Judaism and Christianity- or their own faiths. The crossover of people of one faith being ignorant of another is something I’d like to say I at least beat the spread on. I for instance, can name half of the Ten Commandments: kill, steal, parents, wife, goods, monotheism, graven images. That adds up, if we include the fact that some of that is often merged, we get to at least five.

So while I don’t know the seven principles particularly well, I do consider myself decently aware of other religions. Zoroastrianism is a term I get at some level. Jainism and Shinto are schools of thought I have some knowledge of. I took a year of Hebrew and Christian scriptures, as well as a year of world religions in secondary school. While I haven’t read in full a major religious text,I do have most of the Gita and parts of the Old and New Testament under my belt. I often flirt with having a minor in religion just to get to read more relevant texts- I prefer it to traditional philosophy, which I find much denser.

So I submit to the public- it’s not really important that you’ve got your own creed backwards and forwards, the key is to be well-versed in other creeds. For it’s not the lack of knowledge of what we believe that causes conflict- most often it is the lack of knowledge of what others believe. I think much of that is self-evident in the current conflict between Islamic governments and the secular/Judeo-Christian West- mutual intelligibility. Which is interesting in an of itself that most of the conflict is between countries with Abrahamic backgrounds- but I would compare it to bringing Julius Caeser back from the dead to talk to a modern day Latin professor. They both speak ostensibly similar things, but it is likely they would have serious issues understanding one another.