Cautious about “First Principle Euphoria”

For weeks, if not months, my historian’s heart and mind have been nervous, conflicted, about the various “Standing on the Side of Love” campaigns teeming through my denomination, Unitarian Universalism. It has taken quite a while to sort it all out. Welcoming the refugee children and reopening the books on people who have been unjustly incarcerated (and are still alive) both feel right. They follow long-established policy statements by our General Assemblies, and more and more take shape as work done by dedicated members of our faith community. Indeed, although my current life doesn’t support such offerings, it gratifies me to state that back when I had the chance, I did indeed work in a refugee camp, identifying and assisting victims of bitter war.

So what’s the problem? For a long time, I could not tell. It took the return of an old PBS program, a Secrets of the Dead about Irish railway workers, to finally finish the puzzle. The most idealistic form of patriotic Universalism deludes us into wishful thinking if we turn our backs on the harsh truth of immigration history. Sure, the Statue of Liberty called on us to open our doors and shores. But a more callous, a more vicious thread of the American Dream — what might be called The American Scheme — saw such infusions of enthusiasm differently. If the American Dream says anyone can work hard and make a good living here, if not for themselves then for their children and grandchildren, the American Scheme says that an entrenched elite can weave itself into a secretive network of social institutions by which all this enthusiasm can be exploited, sucked dry, discarded. From this enthusiasm the most talented will be plucked for a different kind of exploitation. By appearing to have succeeded by their own efforts, they will renew the social networks of power, giving false hope to some group which had begun to understand the slight dimensions of its chances for collective stability.

As to the opening of the prisons, need I mention the disaster which was the closing of mental institutions in the early 1970s? “Community treatment” it was called. “Community neglect” is more likely. Might I remind us that many of these unjustly incarcerated are exactly the same individuals, or survivors with exactly the same neurological issues, that we refused to support before? I look at cities installing those anti-homeless spikes on benches and grates, and suddenly prison looks like a better alternative for many.

So what’s a good liberal to do? People are dying in place, struggling to find safety and freedom; we hardly can turn our backs on brutal bloodshed. And our troubles — what we derisively call “First World Problems” — truly do pale next to theirs. Surely we can adapt our lives to come up with some greater generosity?

Well, maybe not. Unitarian Universalists need to take a second look at our First Principle. My attention has lately shifted to the second part of its affirmation of everyone’s “inherent worth and dignity.”

How do we affirm and establish everyone’s God-given dignity in the current world of shrinking resources? Politywonk — and I bet this is pretty common in my faith family — spends a lot of time studying the news and hissing at screens bearing bad news. Then I turn my attention to the quest for structural reforms at macro levels. Single Payer Universal Access Health Insurance. A higher national minimum wage. Access to family planning for all families everywhere. When it comes to covenants, my focus makes a huge jump: covenant is for family and congregation; the next level is universal civic religion.

But now that I’m old — sixty, which is, you have to admit, more old than young — reality advises that intermediate covenants are what supports life’s frail intervals. Neighborhood and congregation caring for others, not just in the abstract, but at the ready, over and over, the same faces, the same voices, the same stories, over and over and over. This takes my mind back to the refugee program at the end of the Indochinese war. By sending an advance guard of “pre-screeners” — of which I was one — and finding out who everyone was (and verifying with endless hours of document-sharing by means of modern electronics) and where they had a reason to settle successfully, the international community achieved what might have been the most successful relocation program in history. Yet when President Obama suggested this a few weeks ago — “let’s go down to Honduras and sort people out” — he was hooted off the stage.

The key to that program’s success was not bureaucracy, it was covenant. No one got released for resettlement until someone at the destination had agreed to provide shelter, financial support, educational and job mentoring for each applicant, one by one. Congregations and social welfare agencies mingled with families in making and fulfilling these commitments. Neither federal bureaucracy nor civic religion — both ultimately impersonal and depersonalizing — has ever accomplished what these highly partialist (the opposite of universalist, meaning, “only part is saved”)  structures achieved with particular commitments. (For what it’s worth, the same held true of organized labor — which is why it ultimately failed. Its success lay in nurturing certain ethnic and family networks; it failed when those same groups — wrongly, as it turns out — believed they no longer needed its power against impermeable secret networks of exploitation.)

For several years now, I’ve watched our yellow-tee-shirt brigades pop up in place after place, hoping always to discern not just a fireworks of caring but a network of mentoring and nurture. Maybe it’s happening. But there’s a painful moment — which I’m going through now — of grieving that idealistic universalism and exposing my heart to all the aches and pains of personal relationships. It’s so much more fun to demonstrate, and there’s always another outrage. But how many folks in need will watch my car drive past them as I head for that next media event? Maybe it’s time to remember the starfish story and hold up these little beachheads as the real places where our yellow teeshirts can build a better world.

Valley Fever

Valley Fever

Not quite 48 hours ago, I considered the possibility that wetland insects were God’s way of protecting us from destroying natural floodwalls. And then comes this week’s New Yorker, with an article hinting that God has provided the same kind of cautionary warning for desert-dwellers. You can’t see an aquifer disappearing, but perhaps rising sickness among your family and friends would cause you to move on.

Or maybe not.

Proving once again that “nobody ever went broke underestimating the American intellect.”

Which raises this question:

How much of our dreadfully high national health bill comes from our insistence on building and living in ecological niches for which we were not intended?

The Right Wing Vision: Eugenics Disguised as Demographic Collapse

Please excuse that my posts are shorter and less developed than they used to be. But if you’re as busy and as jumpy as I am, perhaps you like this better.

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of The War on Poverty, and commentators are commenting. When I listen to the Radical Right policy programs — opposition to health insurance, opposition to unemployment insurance, opposition to infrastructure spending (including things like roads and bridges), opposition to public health regulatory frameworks, the only thing I can figure is that they are hoping for a demographic collapse. That’s right, they — by which I mean the professional politicians, not their confused, frightened, outraged victims in The Tea Party — seem intent on driving most of the voters out of their districts and states. It’s no longer fashionable — or legal — to condemn the reproductive enthusiasms of the poor, so the next best thing is to wear out the parents and starve out the children. Perhaps the poor will be so committed to demographic collapse that they’ll move out of the Red State or district to one which offers them medical options for limiting the number of their offspring.

But when I googled “demographic collapse,” what I discovered is that The Tea Party believe that the demographic collapse strategy has already been launched, and it has them in its crosshairs. And why? Because depopulation has so far been most effective in rural areas, whence jobs, hospitals, schools, corner stores, have been disappearing. So yes, there is a demographic collapse strategy underway, sweeping against poor folks of every race, political persuasion, language, ethnic heritage. 

And by “poor”, please note that I assert that the relevant level of wealth is not how much you have now, but how much you had as a child, how much you have now, and what you believe you will be able to make available to your offspring. Wealth is not a single number, it’s a generational process involving social, political, and economic capital. And if your parents had more than you have, and your kids have no hope of inheriting any from you, you consider yourself “the new poor.” If you’re in this new poor, you have good company. The natives of most Western European countries are also busy limiting the number of their offspring. The countries once made socially rich by the Enlightenment definition of humanity no longer give humanity a reason to reproduce. (And yes, I realize — and would be the first to point out — that much of this was achieved through hereditary unpaid hostage labor and decimation of original landholders; it was a definition that needed a lot of improvement.)

The very rich who have bought the services of these politicians seem to believe they have created a world in which most of their neighbors, employees, servants, and neighbors are superfluous to both their happiness and their assets. Counterproductive, even. Yet there have been demographic collapses before — most notably after either pandemics or natural disasters — and eventually the very rich, too, become its victims. “Supply-side economics” — the discredited assertion that wealth comes from having abundant resources and the inclination to transform them into something useful for someone else — has solid roots in Jewish scripture — and probably any other. When Moses took the Israelites on their unguided tour of the wilderness, God sustained their natural lifespans with unsolicited, uncultivated, untended gifts of manna, honey, and water. Jesus and Buddha both enjoyed similar unbidden generosities, which they turned into gifts for humanity. So I do not dismiss “supply-side economics” as clear idiocy: it’s something we all want to believe, not just of what God can do for us, but of what we could do, if God would only give us a little more.

And that’s where the calculation flips. Because when God gives us a little more, it only expands the economy when we share it with others, shop with it, invest it in someone else’s paycheck. If we build a factory out of robots — the current fantasy of the very rich — it’s just a toy, because whatever that factory produces has no market. Demand is what makes things happen, not supply. There is no better proof than in studying the ministry of Jesus. You may or may not believe he performed any miracles, but he sure as heck did it in response to requests, rather than as a circus act or political message. Buddha made demands on himself, but most thoroughly energized his productive capacity to answer the suffering of others.

There is a debate going on tonight about unemployment insurance, health insurance, infrastructure repair, all kinds of jobs and assets that the rich no longer wish to provide to the poor. It’s been tried before, and for the rich, it didn’t go that well. The Black Death deprived Europe’s nobility of armies to keep their serfs on the land, which allowed the serfs to develop new skills and form new cities, and by networking among themselves, build up assets in social, economic, and political currencies. And when this happened, the old aristocracy were not the beneficiaries of new riches.

But neither were the families lost in the demographic collapse.

Pastoral Care for Obamacare

Now that the Affordable Care Act has provoked the unavoidable controversies, I find myself missing true religious leadership during this process.

You might be liberal or conservative, in either your theology or your politics, but as a clergy-person, you are taught to stand with your people during times of change, and reassure them that, “Yes, change is hard. Yes, change is scary. When familiar things get rearranged, it feels like you’re under attack.”

Depending on your theology, you then say, “You’ve been through stuff like this before. You know people who have been through stuff like this before. Change is hard. Change is scary. You feel like you’re being attacked. Let’s see if you are really being attacked, or whether God is working in your life to make things better.”

This is where some facts come in. Not big picture government facts, but personal information: “Do you have health insurance right now? What is the best part of it? What is the worst part of it? Think about your own family. What do you know from coworkers and neighbors with the same coverage?”

Then you stay personal, not political. The religious path is to stay away from the blame game. “How did you feel when that happened? What were people telling you? Did anyone step up to help you with the other stuff at that time? Who was that ? What did they do for you?”

Depending on your theology, this is a chance to call on God, with a prayer of thanksgiving for everything that worked. The family members that loaned money. The neighbor who cut your lawn without being asked (this really happened to me). The coworker who kept your desk up-to-date while you were out. The Meal Train that brought food while your family lacked a cook. Community. Connections. The things health insurance never offered, and never will.

And then, back to health care. Not the law, your life.

“How much of what worked for you in that situation is affected by the Affordable Health Care Act, either for good or ill? Do you even know?”

“So if you don’t know the answer to this, can we just say a prayer for courage and God’s love while you work to figure this out?”

If liberal religious groups really want to make this law happen, their first step is to quit talking about policy and start setting up small groups to work together on the scariness of this adjustment.  To set up prayers for everyone making this adjustment, even just as part of worship. Name it as a stress sweeping through our nation, just as much as immigration injustice (however you define THAT!) or an unexpected wave of water.

Politicians are going to be reworking this thing for a long time. Meanwhile, we, in religion, we’ve got people we ought to be caring for. And the more strength we can bring to their souls in this stage, the more strength they will bring to the stages of correction and adjustment that come next.

Good News, Bad News

It should have been a moment of joy, not of calculation. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and however much I do for her, she does as much or more for me.

So OF COURSE when she asked me to marry her the other night, I said yes.

That’s the good news: Lynne and I are engaged. Despite her Huntington’s Disease (she is about to enter her twelfth year of living with it since diagnosis) and our being both women, marriage is a real option in her mind.

But maybe, for me, not so much.

Not that I hesitate in making her my life partner, calling her “wife” to my “wife,” “spouse” to my “spouse.” For years now, I’ve been fantasizing more about what she would wear to our wedding than what I would wear. Would she put aside her deep aversion to jewelry and wear a ring that tells the world she’s mine? It’s almost as if I quit wearing any of my own rings until the day she puts one on my hand.

But, alas, financially, I can only do a non-legal blessing ceremony. Not because we’re both women, but because at low incomes, marriage gets heavily penalized.

I don’t often encourage UUs to study information from Sam Brownback, the socially conservative governor of Kansas, but he’s got my back on this one.  That was in 2008; the update on Obamacare is just as bleak. Small wonder that David Blankenhorn, long a pro-family activist, has abandoned the fight against marriage for same-sex couples like Lynne and me and begun asking how to support any couple, straight or gay, who wants to be married and poor.

Even the laughably left-wing state of Vermont, which is perfectly happy to let us get married with full equal rights, would then turn around and cut off the pay I get for staying home to take care of Lynne. What started out as equal rights has suddenly made me aware there are equal penalties.

These same penalties apply in Social Security and numerous other low-income supports. The Earned Income Tax Credit, the single largest redistributor of income into working poor households, is one of the worst offenders. If you thought America had long since accepted life without The Donna Reed Show, you haven’t been paying attention to these injustices, not based on gender, but on class.

So yes, do congratulate us, and celebrate our good fortune in so many ways. But if you really want to do something useful, to make this about more than just two women in a struggling once-middle-class household, put these injustices up next to your concerns about DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and devote yourself to any couple, straight or gay, who wants to get married — and simply can’t afford to.

The Less Comfortable Diversity

Let me just start with the disclaimer that it is not the goal of this post to eliminate anti-racism as something all of us need to work on, both in our personal and public lives.  But while anti-racism needs to include seeing race as one dimension of power, it also needs to engage the opposite dynamic, of removing race to look at power more deeply.

Here is what some scientists have found by looking at a group which lacks power as conveyed through the medium of education:

Life Expectancy Shrinks for Less-Educated Whites in U.S.

Published: September 20, 2012 (New York Times)

The purpose of this blog is to comment on the religious institution in which I am an ordained minister, The Unitarian Universalist Association, using our basic principles as a corrective. This often leads me to attack our imbalanced emphasis on institutional educational excellence as a detriment to discovering what we call the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Usually I position that critique in the larger world of employment and education itself, and call for greater application of what we now know about the many ways of being intelligent. My challenge usually bemoans the few avenues for enough economic stability to nurture self-fulfillment for everyone in a family and community. This is certainly no lonely prophetic mission: our religious educators and UUs for a Just Economic Community are coworkers who educate and sustain what little I can say.

But too often, in making this effort, I feel thwarted by an over-emphasis in displaying the more comfortable diversity of anti-racism. And why is anti-racism “the more comfortable diversity” for us?

That’s because from 1900 to 1927, in the first era of corporate academic expansion, American Unitarian Association President Samuel Atkins Eliot undertook an active campaign to shut down less affluent congregations. Equating the association’s future stability with the environment in which he had grown up — Harvard University, of which his father was president and virtually everyone he knew was a professor and/or graduate — he actively closed out small congregations that eked out their livings on the bottom edges of prosperity.

There are certainly congregations that ought to be closed, all the time and in every faith community. But using economic criteria to find them was a mistake. And to some extent, it may have been a smoke screen. A green velvet curtain concealing the more humble reality that the folks in such congregations often live life differently: they have a higher degree of hands-on contribution than financial largesse. In one of my favorite passages from his speeches, Eliot praised the women of one now-departed congregation for the industriousness — but his measure was that they were putting on food sales and such to raise money.

When folks got together to do gardening, painting, patching… this he tended not to see. Like me, he had a scholarly temperament, and, in fact, I very much advocate that all of us pay more attention to his praise of the role of scholarship in religious self-definition. But let’s not go overboard, like he did. Let’s use the one gift we get from the passing of time — the wisdom of hindsight — to see the bell curve of his perspective. His generation can and should be praised for opening books to so many who had not had the opportunity to enjoy them (he was even a strong advocate of prison and post-prison rehabilitation education and ministries), but they attempted to universalize that definition of human excellence. This led him into the cultural cleansing of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and many of his peers into the horrid false science of eugenics, and the forced sterilization of folks with mental retardation or the social underdevelopment that results from generations of total deprivation.

Those are still the folks who make us uncomfortable, and race does not define them. They are not the objects of occasional charity, but neighbors who need consistent and unequal engagement from our best selves. Our growth will always keep us ahead of their growth. But if we do not connect with them — when we cut those social ties to local parish — we get what these scientists are describing: a group which is actively falling behind in the raw statistics of life and death.

I have written before that anti-racism — a laudable long-term value in Unitarianism and much of Universalism — served us as an internal unifier during the difficult years after Reverend Stephen H. Fritchman was removed from Unitarian (pre-merger) leadership for allegedly using the denominational publication to promote Communist Party goals. It was my privilege to serve as researcher for Reverend Charles Eddis’s comprehensive reexamination of this subject. Inevitably, as my wind-up reading delved into the fallout, I was stunned to see how the emerging Civil Rights movement allowed any former AUA Communists– who had been the strongest voice against racism — to carry on part of their conviction in harmony with mainstream Unitarianism and progressive national vision.

But let us never forget that the leader of the Civil Rights movement was DR. Martin Luther King. The ranks he led most effectively were folks who already had achieved the military and educational background — often over many generations — to enter the middle class from which they were being excluded. As Dr. King extended his reach to the more intractably underprivileged, his movement began to fall apart. We will never know what would have happened to that Poor People’s March on Washington if he hadn’t been assassinated — while crusading on behalf of garbage collectors.

But we do know what happened to the UUA. We lost the narrative of comprehensive progress and became fixated on the whiteness of our culture. Yet by doubling down against that whiteness, we remain stuck in the first stages of the Civil Rights movement, looking for people of color whose educational attainments bring them quickly and comfortably into the educational milieu Dr. Sam had laid out in an era which is rapidly passing into the dim dust of time.

There is no question that when you look at studies within every demographic community of this nation — from the Republican Party to African American leadership –you see the same dilemma. Every single group is stuck trying to figure out what to do for the folks in its ranks who have lost the education race. We are not alone in this, and we are not particularly guilty in this. It’s a national — indeed, an international problem.

But my particular group is a religion, and what little I know about religion tells me this: we will be judged guilty if we just walk by. We must quit looking past these people, rendering them invisible to what little privilege we retain — just because they happen to be the same race as ourselves and our far more privileged founders.