Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bring Back Childhood!

When a nine-year-old boy was charged with sexual harassment and suspended from school for calling his fourth grade teacher “cute” earlier this month, it made me wonder about other signs of the times. Is childhood itself in danger of disappearing?

What does it mean when twelve and thirteen-year-old girls are among the most highly paid models in America, turned into sex objects to sell everything from blue jeans to breath mints?

Why does the age of puberty keep dropping, from sixteen a century ago to eleven for girls today, with some starting to menstruate at the age of six? 

What does it mean when Newt Gingrich, a top presidential contender, can propose putting elementary school children (especially those in “the poorest neighborhoods”)  to work as janitors and cafeteria workers, and receive applause for the line?  My wife’s great-uncle perished in an accident at age fourteen, digging coal in Pennsylvania.  Is that the vision for our children’s futures?

Childhood is such a fragile and fleeting period between infancy and adolescence: a narrow window of curiosity and playfulness and unbroken trust.  But that window now seems to be closing.

What does it mean when millions of school kids take Ritalin just to get through the day, and when diagnoses of bipolar disorder, once unheard of among children, have seen a 4000% spike the past decade?  An optimist might say that medical science is now just much better at spotting and treating mood disorders.  But then why are youngsters committing suicide in record numbers?  Are children more depressed because they are less sheltered, more vulnerable than ever?  I have more questions than answers.

What does it mean that children’s games are being forgotten?  Hopscotch and hide-and-go-seek aren’t much in evidence among today’s kids, who can recite dialogue from re-runs of the Simpsons word for word, but have never heard of Mother Goose.  Did you realize that the words to “Ring-Around-The-Rosy” are over 600-years-old, not transmitted by parents but handed down among children themselves, passed from playmate to friend?  Now rhymes and songs that persisted for centuries are in danger of extinction.  It’s like the story of the little girl who said to her mother, “Did you tell me that blue vase in the front room had been handed down from one generation to another in your family?”  “Yes dear, why do you ask?” the mother replied. The little girl answered, “Because, Mommy, I’m very sorry, but this generation has dropped it!”

More questions.  Why are children criminalized for acting like kids?  A father recently visited my office distraught about his son.  When the second-grader broke another child’s crayon and tore his classmate’s picture, police were called.  Social workers and school psychologists organized a task force.  What had gotten into his child, the father wondered?  The incident made me ask, if Tom and Huck, those icons of American boyhood, were to pop off the page and come to life today, would they be identified as “youth at risk” and assigned probation officers?  I worry when so many youngsters are labeled deviant and even prosecuted for getting into ordinary mischief.  Aren’t we, as a society, “at risk” of eliminating childhood altogether?

Perhaps the best gift parents can give their offspring this holiday season are the ones money can’t buy.  Spend time with your kids.  Play a game, have a sing-along, or enjoy a family dinner.  Above all, turn off the TV.  Neilson, the ratings company, shows that 2-5 year olds are now spending an average of 32 hours per week parked in front of the tube!   Say “No” to a culture that wants to brand your children before they can think for themselves.  Share lessons in discipline and self-control that will enable them to resist the blandishments of growing up too fast.  Read them a story.  Instead of racing to the mall shopping for stocking stuffers, use your energy making this a warm and wondrous moment in their lives. 

Before the moment slips away, give them the gift of childhood itself.   

Friday, November 25, 2011

Degrees of Separation

Is the world getting more connected, or more fragmented?  Facebook, in conjunction with the University of Milan, recently announced that there were only 4.74 "degrees of separation" among its 700 million users (representing 10% of the world's population).   That contrasts with the famous six degrees that Yale researcher Stanley Milgram found back in the 1960's.  Social media, we're to believe, are bringing people closer together.

Of course, I have 336 "friends" on Facebook, most of whom I've never met outside a chat room.  My son has 873.  So despite the ballyhoo from Facebook, I have doubts that computers are building the kind of relationships that count.

A study published in the American Sociological Review in 2004 found that a quarter all Americans say they have no one they can talk to about important matters, and that number more than doubled from an similar study done twenty years before.  Imagine, not having a single confidante. It just confirms the thesis of Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, that we're becoming more socially isolated, even as the world gets more wired.

In fact, the phrase "online community" may be an oxymoron, like "Amtrak schedule" or "airline food."  This past summer, researchers at the University of Wisconsin put teenage girls in stressful situations, like solving mental arithmetic problems, meanwhile measuring the girls' levels of cortisol, a bio-marker for stress, and oxytocin, a hormone associated with feelings of well-being and trust.  During the test, the teens were permitted either to text their mothers, or to call mom on the phone.  It turned out that the phone conversation, and the soothing tone of mother's voice, lowered stress levels in the girls.  Texting had no such effect.

The study just confirms my own prejudices.  Call me retro, but I still prefer chatting with a real live person on the telephone, rather than interacting with a voice-mail robot.  The world has gained in efficiency and cost-savings, but lost a dimension that's warm and comforting.

It appears that we need an actual human presence--the shelter of each other--to feel whole.  There's no digital substitute for a hug, a handshake or a smile.  This is one role that religious institutions play in our culture, as well as civic organizations and bowling leagues.  Of course, merely attending a church, mosque or synagogue doesn't automatically mean you feel known and accepted.  You still have to do the work of building caring bonds.  But at least meaningful relationships are possible in congregations and similar affinity groups in a way that cyberspace just won't allow.

How much of the vulgarity of American culture is due to the fact that we've become a nation of strangers?  How much of the incivility in our politics can be traced to the breakdown of respectful person-to-person communication?  The good news is that the cure for this malady is readily available.  Through everyday acts of kindness, and by reaching out to others in a spirit of helpfulness and cooperation, we can begin to re-weave the fabric of  community. 

Indeed, the mathematical algorithms that measure "degrees of separation" across the planet show that when we reach outside our personal comfort zone, for example to encounter someone from a different race, a different religion, or a different political viewpoint, our actions have a multiplier effect.  One person who breaks through ghettos of privilege and prejudice can lower the level of global estrangement, much more than you might predict.

But perhaps you didn't need a university study or a mathematical analysis to tell you what the world's religions have affirmed for centuries.  There is no technological fix. The best way to bring our world closer together--to lower the degree of separation and strife--is the old-fashioned way, though charity and compassion, by practicing patience and tolerance and goodwill, turning strangers into friends and enemies into conversation partners, one by one by one.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Ninety-Nine Percent

This generation's Civil Rights movement is Occupy Wall Street.  Initially, the protesters lacked specific demands, but the Occupiers do have real complaints--the chasm between rich and poor--taking their slogan from the fact that 1% of the population now controls 40% of the nation's wealth.

To imagine what that means, picture a vast parade of U.S. citizens marching toward a goal post representing the American Dream.  Now suppose that each person's height correlates to their net worth.  An individual of average height (say 5' 8")  would have $38,000 in savings because that's the median net wealth in this country.  Half the population owns more, half less.   

The parade begins January 1 and a whole year is required for all 312 million of us to file past the goal line  Only for the first three months, we don't see anybody marching because a quarter of all Americans don't own anything.  They're in debt.  They owe on student loans or their mortgages are underwater.  These citizens have negative worth, thus negative height.  In our parade, they are invisible, underground, as they often are in real life, like the homeless.

But come spring, there's a rustling in the soil and soon heads begin to poke above the surface of the ground.  But it's a race of little people, the kind in Gulliver'sTravels.  After the initial surprise, we notice something else.  Most of these Lilliputians are women.  Many are black or Hispanic, mothers with children even smaller than their tiny parents.  Because the average net worth for black women in this country is just five dollars, these multitudes will be less than 1/100 of an inch tall.  You could hold a whole village in the palm of your hand!  That is, if you're an average sized person.

But perhaps you're not of normal height.  Maybe you own more than $38,000.  If you're a professional or information worker, could be part of the top 20%, the upper middle class that controls 50% of the nation's wealth.  You're 25 or even 50 feet tall.  Your turn to march doesn't come until late October.  But you're still part of the 99%.

It's not until December 29 that we finally glimpse the 1%, individuals with assets of $9 million or more.  Then the long line of citizens who have slowly been increasing in height suddenly spikes vertically.  They're tall as the Empire State Building. Then, tall as mountains, heads above the clouds.  And what about the Forbes 400, the 400 people who now own more than the poorest 150 million combined?  In our parade, these gargantuan hedge fund managers and CEOs start appearing just 40 seconds before midnight, and since you need a net worth of at least $1.3 billion to qualify for Forbes, each would be at least 38 miles tall, approaching low earth orbit. 

And giants like Warren Buffet, a thousand miles tall, pay taxes at a lower rate than the rest of us.  That's part of the reason the Occupiers are mad.  They're fed up with a Congress that can find trillions for foreign wars and bank bailouts, but says we have to cut Medicare and Social Security, trim benefits for firefighters and teachers and raise tuition at public universities because there's no money for higher education.  They angry when they see society's greatest rewards lavished not on  those who work for a living, but on con artists who make their money selling exploding securities to pension funds and then placing side bets that the seniors get burned. 

Our poverty rate today is higher than it was in 1968 when Dr. King first conceived his Poor People's March.  That was to be an encampment, too, thousands converging on Washington to erect a shanty of tarps and tents to demand an "economic bill of rights."  King's occupation failed.  He himself was assassinated while visiting Memphis to support striking garbage workers, but his entire operation had begun to founder as he turned his energy from ending Jim Crow to economic justice. 

What use is it to win the right to sit at a lunch counter, King asked, if you can't afford a hamburger?  Occupiers raise similar questions.  What good is it to be able to vote, if you can't afford to buy a politician?

Liberty and equality have always stood in tension in America.  And it was King's last hope to bring greater equity to the scales of democracy.  This is also the Occupy movement's goal. Powerful forces are arrayed against them.  Nothing will change without struggle.  But who can doubt that change is needed?  As you contemplate that  long parade of Americans marching toward the goal of a better life, some hundreds of miles tall and others a fraction of an inch in height, you understand why the little people have begun to rise.  

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Table of Mutual Respect

Like James Madison, the fourth President of the United States and father of the U.S. Constitution who had misgivings about Chief Executives making religious pronouncements of any kind, I could dispense with annual Thanksgiving Proclamation from the White House. But still I enjoy the holiday and forgive Obama and most of his predecessors for engaging in a little liturgical theater each November.

Glancing at George Washington's declaration of the first Thanksgiving, in 1789, provides an interesting window into the Founders' faith. Washington prominently offers gratitude for the "religious liberty with which we have been blessed." He also prays for the "practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science," suggesting no incompatibility between the two but implying that greater understanding of nature's laws might be the best window into the mind of the creator.

Washington actually acknowledged "Almighty God" in this document, which was a rarity in his other proclamations. More often, he referred to the deity with the kinds of circumlocutions that dot the rest of this Thanksgiving announcement: "Beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be ... Great Lord and Ruler of Nations ... Providence." Interestingly, Washington nowhere, in any of his journals or correspondence, ever uses Christological formulas to refer to the divinity, e.g. "Savior, Redeemer," etc. In his own way, and in the context of his time, he was searching for what we'd now call inclusive religious language that went beyond Christian sectarianism to unite Americans of all religious persuasions in a bond of fellowship, civic cooperation and goodwill.

It was not a bad dream. And in today's polarized religious climate--when Mitt Romney's Mormonism is again a campaign issue and Muslims are profiled as potential terrorists--the Founders remain a sensible model of how faith might yet become a force that unites rather than divides us from each other. I imagine even atheists might thank God--with a wink--for the First Amendment. So let's celebrate and give thanks:

For a world in which there are many faiths,
For a nation in which there is freedom of worship,
And a land where people of all creeds, colors and backgrounds can sit together
At the table of mutual care and respect.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Boston Clergy Speak Out

As clergy and people of faith, we applaud the Occupiers in Boston and elsewhere who are reigniting American democracy from the grassroots. We join them in the vision of a society where all people enjoy a fair shake, with equitable access to education, healthcare, housing, and other basics necessary to achieve a dignified life. We are appalled that the nation's poverty rate today is higher than when Martin Luther King Jr. organized the "Poor People's March" back in 1968.

Dr. King inspired people of all races and classes to walk for "Jobs and Justice." The national Occupy movement asserts the same goals. These protests are occurring for a reason. In the more than four decades since King's death, middle-class incomes have stagnated, the jobless rate has soared, and the super-rich have managed to manipulate financial regulations and tax rates to claim an ever growing share of the nation's wealth. The richest 400 people in the country now have more assets than the poorest 150 million of their fellow citizens combined.

The vast majority of Americans--the 99% and many of the other 1%- --are angry when some of the biggest businesses in the country pay no taxes. We see banks that brought the country to the edge of economic ruin being bailed out with public money, while millions forfeit their homes in the mortgage meltdown these same banks created. We feel increasingly powerless when mammoth corporations, invested with all the rights of "persons" to spend limitless amounts of money in electoral politics, hand-tailor legislation to benefit shareholders and CEOs at the expense of citizens and workers.

Has Government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" now become government of, by, and for the specially privileged? In order to restore our democracy, ordinary people must rise up to restore control of their own lives and economic destiny. We call on all to join in supporting the Occupiers closest to you, logistically, politically, faithfully. Now is the time.

Rev. Dorothy Emerson
Rev. Gary Kowalski
Rev. Elaine Peresluha
(Your Signature Here?  We invite Unitarian Universalist clergy to sign on, send this statement to local papers and read it to your congregation sometime in the next month.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Occupy Wall Street Has A Fight On Its Hands

The thousands of people gathering in lower Manhattan and camping out in other cities across the nation bring to mind the Poor People's Campaign of 1968, when Martin Luther King rallied tens of thousands to erect a tent encampment ("Resurrection City") on the National Mall.

They were demanding jobs and justice. "We are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power," King declared. What was the use of being able to legally sit at a lunch counter, he rhetorically asked, if you couldn't afford the price of a hamburger? But turning his attention from ending Jim Crow to restructuring a system that rewarded the few at the expense of the many was King's undoing. In April of that year he was assassinated, and the tent city sank into a morass of mud and despair.

Will Occupy Wall Street have any greater success in challenging the financial titans who control Amercai's economy? In 1968, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 13% of the American public--25 million people--were living below the poverty line. In 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available, that figure had risen to 46 million people, or over 15% of the population classified as poor, unable to satisfy the basic necessities of food, shelter, clothing and medical care. Since the days of the Poor People's Campaign, most Americans, and to an even greater extent most people of color (who have been hardest hit by the recession) have lost ground.

This should be a sobering thought to the youthful leaders of today's protests. They are trying to achieve what a master organizer and tactician like Dr. King failed in: to fundamentally alter the terms of the financial lottery that determines winners and losers in our society. Judging from history, their struggle will necessarily be a long one, with massive resistance from the entrenched, monied interests who are unlikely to concede anything without a fight.

As abolitionist Frederick Douglas wrote of an earlier contest, "This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed the endurance of those whom they oppress."

I am all for the Wall Street Occupiers, who seem bright, articulate, well-informed and to have both logic and fairness on their side. But having all the good arguments, unfortunately, will not determine who continues to reap the spoils of crony capitalism.  I hope the Occupiers realize what they are up against.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Wall Street Protesters Target Wealth Without Work

Protesters occupying Wall Street in lower Manhattan have begun to identify themselves as the "Ninety Nine Percent." But who then are the One Percent?

The One Percent are the Super Rich, whom House Majority Leader John Boehner labels the "Job Creators." Taxing them, according to most Republicans, would punish the very individuals who can do most to revive our struggling economy. But are the ultra-rich entrepreneurs, innovators, or catalysts for job growth?

Many researchers, like Thomas Shapiro of Brandeis University, conclude that the vast majority of personal wealth in the United States is inherited, not earned. In Who's Running America? Thomas Dye discovered that by the latter part of the 20th century, only 4% of the richest men in the nation had struggled up from the bottom, just a tenth as many as at the start of century. Economist Laurence Kotlikoff of Yale calculates that 80% of the total wealth in America is inherited--and as we know, that wealth is increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, with the top One Percent of U.S. households owning nearly half of all investment assets.

Steve Jobs, whose father was a Coast Guard vet and machinist, was apparently the exception to the rule, a billionaire who was self-made and actually created the jobs his name suggests. Most of the ultra-rich (like the Bush family and the Kennedys) got their money the old fashioned way: they inherited it.

The Wall Street protesters are justifiably fed up with a system that rewards the accidents of birth more than it rewards hard work, brains and personal initiative. They're tired playing a rigged game where your parent's net worth is a better predictor of whether you'll go on to college than your own grade point average. They're asking whether the One Percent, who were born sucking on silver spoons and continue to suck up most of the nation's assets, aren't simply parasites on the economy.

Don't you think they have a point?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Prayer on the Tenth Anniversary

The prayer I will share with my congregation this coming Sunday, September 11, 2011.

We gather on this beautiful morning,
the anniversary of a day painful to remember
but impossible to forget ...

We remember all the heroes and heroines of that day
the firefighters and emergency responders
who demonstrated such courage in the midst of crisis

We remember the innocents who perished
Our friends and neighbors and the thousands of strangers
Who were victims of random violence

We remember knowing for a moment
That we were connected to each precious life,
To the survivors and to those who died,
With a bond of shared humanity
That the forces of hate could never break

We remember the voices that counseled peace
Even as our nation prepared for war

And we raise our voices still against fanaticism
In all its forms,
Against jihad, against militarism, against racism and religious intolerance,

Praying that the harsh combustion of that day
Might even now cast a more gentle light,
Leading to a future where all people can live in freedom
And without fear.

Sudbury, Massachusetts, where my church is located, lost three town people on that day, including Jeffrey Cloud, the son of members in my congregation, who worked atop the first tower in New York.   First Parish of Sudbury will toll its bell for one minute at 8:46 am in memoriam.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Reason for the Fireworks

On Independence Day, Americans remember their Founders.  Far from being passé, the men who gave birth to this country were visionaries—centuries ahead of their time.

When George Washington was elected president, for example, there was still a king in France, a tsar in Russia, a shogun in Japan and an emperor in China.  The prevailing wisdom held that governments were divinely instituted, with rulers appointed by God to preside over their subjects.

The United States, on the contrary, predicated its Constitution upon the authority of “We the People,” never mentioning a deity.  So John Adams cautioned that the framers “never were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven,” that ours was the first state “based solely on the principles of nature.”

The concept of popular sovereignty caught on.  Now, monarchs are a vanishing breed, while even the most brutal dictatorships hold sham elections and at least pay lip service to the peoples’ will.

Our Founders, moreover, virtually invented the notion of human rights.  In an age of slavery, it was an ideal they practiced imperfectly.  But even the worst offenders, like Jefferson, unleashed the radical precept that “all people are created equal,” and once that spark of freedom was kindled, the fire would spread.  The idea that individuals possessed a natural right to life and liberty led to the demand for civil rights and women’s rights, the rights of labor and of children, gay rights and the rights of indigenous people—even animal rights.  Who can doubt our world has been transformed for the better, thanks to these liberation movements?

Most importantly, our Founders embraced the principle of religious pluralism.  Violent wars engulfed Europe in the seventeenth century because of the presumption that citizens of the same nationality had to share a common creed.  Millions died in conflicts that pitted Protestant against Catholic, and everyone against the Jews. 

Determined that faith could be a positive, cohesive force in human affairs, the Founders guaranteed that America would be a land where spiritual variety could flourish.  No religious litmus test could be a bar to public office.  Under the guarantees of the First Amendment, people could worship differently, according to the directives of their personal conscience.  The government would be doctrinally neutral. 

In answer to the recurring question, was American intended to be a Christian nation or a secular state, the Founders would have rejected the premise.  They intended the United States to be a land where faith could thrive in the private sphere, and while religions of all stripes might compete for converts, they should never compete for political domination or military might.  That’s what led to the religious convulsions of the seventeenth century—and that’s what the Founders, by separating church and state, tried to avoid.

Today, thanks to their wisdom, the United States is not only one of the most devout countries in the world.  It is also the most spiritually diverse, where mosques, churches, synagogues and zendos are filled with ardent seekers.  In contrast to many nations where religious feelings runs high, Christians, Buddhists, Moslems, Hindus, Jews and atheists here manage to live in tolerable harmony.

It’s a legacy that people of all faiths can celebrate on this Fourth of July. 

CEO Pay Skyrockets, Again

Average Americans feel glum about this economy, despite the fact that official government numbers say we’ve been out of the recession for over two years.

Why is that?  If the pie is getting bigger (and it is—United States Gross Domestic Product grew 3.1% in the last quarter of 2010 and 1.9% in the first quarter of 2011) why aren’t people celebrating?

Because the pie is being plundered, with enormous portions going to the gluttons at the top and puny slices to the rest of us.

A New York Times article today revealed that CEO pay for execs at the top 200 corporations increased this year an average of 23%.  For the big boss, that equates to a paycheck totaling over ten million annually.  Of course, that’s way more than the typical worker, who earns just $33,190 per year, will see in his or her lifetime.  In fact, the guy at the top earns 343 times what Joe or Jane average brings home. 

This means with a little overtime—just a little over three centuries worth of extra hours—you could be earning the same as head of Comcast, or Target, or Walmart.

So despite America’s growing economy, ordinary people are getting squeezed, told they must sacrifice Medicare, Social Security and other benefits they bought and paid for because we just can’t afford to raise taxes on billionaires.

Baloney.  America remains the richest country in the world, with a $!4.7 trillion economy, accounting for a quarter of everything the planet produces.  The problem is a surfeit of greed in high places.

The United States of America can afford to provide health care to all its citizens, education and the opportunity for college to families stretched by rising tuition bills, and jobs with decent pay and a secure retirement. 

What we can’t afford is a ruling class of corporate chieftains who aren’t willing to share the pie, but have to gobble it all.

Monday, June 13, 2011

When Guys Like This Go To Prison, Questions Must Be Asked

Tonight I heard one of the most inspiring, intelligent, hopeful and sensible discourses ever.  Unfortunately, the speaker, Tim DeChristopher, is going to jail.

Mr. DeChristopher ran afoul of the law at the end of the Bush Administration, when he entered a false bid in a Bureau of Land Management mineral auction, effectively stopping the despoliation of 22,000 sensitive acres near Arches National Park in Utah.  The results of the auction were thrown out anyway, after a finding that BLM was violating its own standards, effectively giving away public resources to the extraction industry (some of the land DeChristopher purchased cost as little as $2.25 an acre).  Nonetheless, Obama’s Justice Department is intent on prosecuting DeChristopher, who faces a probable sentence of 4 ½ years in federal prison, to be announced later this month.

Speaking at Santa Fe’s University of Art and Design, wearing a “Peaceful Uprising” T-shirt that revealed bulging biceps and a barrel chest, DeChristopher looks more like a wrestler than an activist.  Yet he talked fluidly, in complete paragraphs without notes, for over an hour on what drove him to his act of civil disobedience.

He recalled attending a conference in 2007 with Nobel Prize winning scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change.  The worst case scenarios they presented were catastrophes for the planet, while the best case scenarios were also disasters.  Essentially, the scientists agreed that their generation had failed and that the then 26-year-old DeChristopher and his peers would be facing a radically diminished future.

But it’s our economy that has failed, DeChristopher said, built on a premise of ever-increasing acquisition and consumption that has produced huge profits for corporations and a few wealthy winners at the top, but failed to generate happiness or even justice for the majority.

The fossil fuel industry is largely to blame, he suggested.  Look at states where that industry has achieved its greatest success … places like West Virginia and Kentucky for Big Coal, regions like Louisiana and Mississippi where off shore drilling is booming.  These are generally states marked by poverty, lower than average life expectancy, and dismal educational system.  Why?  In an economy based on extraction, whoever owns the resource controls the rules and the outcome of the economic game.

Solar and wind energy challenge that equation, ready to be harnessed by whoever has know-how and is willing to work.  In comparison to oil, coal and nuclear, they tend to democratize power, spread wealth around.  That’s why there is so much resistance to renewables.

In the question-and-answer session, someone asked if capitalism is compatible with a clean environment.  DeChristopher, an economist, responded that, regardless of whether the party in charge calls itself socialist or rock-hard Republican, what matters most is an informed, engaged citizenry not afraid of their own government.  America is not a capitalist country in any case, he continued, but one based on corporate nationalism, with a virtual merger of business and ruling class. 

Adam Smith, who is widely considered the father of capitalist economics, called for “competitive markets,” he pointed out, and to be truly competitive, those markets need to insure that the price of goods truly reflects the costs involved (and that costs are not simply “externalized” or sent downstream like so much pollution, for hapless folks down river to pay in out-of-pocket costs for health care).  Consumers need equal access to vital information.  And according to Smith, no company should be so big or powerful that it can control prices.  Every player should be a price “taker” rather than price “maker.”  America right now could use a little old-fashioned capitalism, DeChristopher proposed.  How’s that for radicalism?

By mid-summer, he’s likely to be behind bars, and he’s reconciled to that. Because when guys like him are so threatening they’re imprisoned, people begin to ask questions.  Who is our government really protecting?  And whose interests does the law really serve? 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Nutritional Nonsense

The USDA today unveiled the new plate that replaces previous versions of the "food pyramid" intended to guide Americans in their nutritional choices.  But is it any improvement over the older versions?

Michelle Obama is pictured with the new design, a dinner plate where Fruits, Grains and Vegetables occupy most of the servings, with just under a quarter of the plate reserved for "Protein."  And for "Protein" the average American will probably substitute the word "Meat."  But wait a minute.  I thought the USDA told us that grains and vegetables were also Proteins.

These figures, also from the USDA, analyze the protein content for average portions of various food groups:

Pinto Beans      15.41 g
Ground Beef     21.73 g
Bulgur               17.21 g
Chicken Drumstick     15.80 g
Alaska King Crab     16.45 g
Canned Pink Salmon     16.81 g
Sliced Ham     9.41 g
Lentils     17.86 g
Split Peas     16.35 g
Trail Mix with Seeds & Nuts     20.73 g
Soybeans     28.62 g

As a vegetarian (a vegan, actually), people frequently ask me "where I get my protein?", as if grains, nuts and legumes aren't full of the stuff.  I'm afraid the new "food plate" will lead to the same confusion among most Americans, who will continue to suppose (wrongly) that meat and dairy products are necessary to a balanced diet.

It would be interesting to know how much input the dairy industry and packing houses like Swift and Armour had into crafting the new guidelines, because clearly they weren't designed by nutritionists and don't even reflect the USDA's own data.

Excessive meat and dairy intake accounts for many of the chronic diseases afflicting our country, from obesity and diabetes to heart disease, stroke and cancer.  For good health, a diet that focuses on plant-based foods  just makes sense.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Prayer for a Congregational Meeting

As interim minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe, I've been asked to deliver some words of inspiration and guidance at our annual congregational meeting, scheduled for this coming Sunday.  Here's what I plan to say:

"I like congregational meetings!  More than any other facet of church life, more than the worship or music or potlucks, these exercises in democratic decision-making go to the heart of our religious heritage.

The right of the members to assemble and deliberate and vote on their spiritual affairs grows out of that same New England tradition that produced town meetings, where neighbors still gather each year to elect their councils and school boards and practice the sometimes difficult art of self-rule.

Thomas Jefferson, whom we claim as one of the forerunners of our liberal faith, called town meeting “the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation.” But of course, Jefferson was from Virginia and probably never attended one.

John Adams, another Unitarian from Massachusetts, was better acquainted with the often messy realities of both town and congregational meetings. In the parish of Braintree, where he grew up, these gatherings could become so heated that, early in the 18th century, a rule was passed to stop people from standing up in their pews and shouting at one another.

Vigorous debate is essential to democracy, and fireworks are certainly a part of our revolutionary tradition. So as we gather this morning, let there be a free and unhampered exchange of ideas, questions and opinions. Democracy is not supposed to be tame or tidy or tepid.

But as we speak, and as we listen, let us also remember this honorable legacy we’re privileged to uphold and carry on, a heritage that goes back to the founders of our nation and the founders of our Unitarian faith. Let us be worthy of the standards of tolerance, reason and civility they embodied and envisioned."

Monday, April 25, 2011

Bound for Glory?

The question of how to get to heaven has been hotly contested over the centuries. Back in the 1500’s, Martin Luther broke from the Catholic Church and launched a Reformation, partly from due to his conviction that we are saved through grace—not through the sacraments of communion or confession or other observances that he considered “works.” The wars of religion engulfed Europe in a bloodbath to settle the issue. But new research suggests such fighting may be a thing of the past.

A recent report from Barna, a religious polling non-profit, suggests that more and more Americans are embracing Universalism, the doctrine that all people will be saved, regardless of what church they happen to attend. According to the data released last week, “One-quarter of born again Christians said that all people are eventually saved or accepted by God (25%) and that it doesn’t matter what religious faith you follow because they all teach the same lessons (26%).“

A report from the Pew Center in 2008, based on interviews with 35,000 respondents, was even more striking, suggesting that a strong majority, even among evangelicals, agreed that Christianity is not the only gateway to paradise, while 83% of those describing themselves as mainline Christians agreed that Jews, Hindus, Muslims and others might make it into heaven.

Universalism—the belief that all souls will eventually be restored to God—spans the ages. Among the Church Fathers, Origen (ca. 185-254 C.E.) held this position. Mega church pastor Rob Bell, who preaches to 10,000 worshipers weekly at his Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, made headlines more recently for describing “hell” in purely earthly terms—consisting in the cruelty, abuse and neglect we visit on ourselves and our neighbors—rather than an abode of eternal punishment awaiting evil-doers.

Universalism has been part of the American scene since the country’s beginning. Benjamin Rush, an intimate of Jefferson and Adams and along with them a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote that, “A belief in God’s universal love to all his creatures, and that he will finally restore all those of them that are miserable to happiness, is a polar truth. It leads to truths upon all subjects, more especially upon the subject of government,” establishing a principle of equality among humankind. George and Martha Washington were subscribers to the Gleaner—a magazine with Universalist leanings edited by Judith Sargent Murray, the wife of America’s most prominent Universalist clergyman of that day.

Seemingly more and more people are beginning to agree that religion should be concerned with “getting heaven into people” rather than getting people into heaven. If that means less sectarian bickering and more cooperation among people of different faiths, Universalism can’t come too soon.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

It Can't Happen Here?

In my last posting, I pondered the possibility of bullets being used against U.S. protesters, as army and police have been called in action again peaceful demonstrators in the Middle East.  Here is an historic photo of the Memphis sanitation worker's strike of 1968, where garbage men picketed with signs inscribed "I Am A Man," walking in the shadow of armored personnel carriers and machine guns.  This is the strike that Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to support, and where he was shot down by a bullet that was not military, but that according to the verdict of a Memphis jury in 1999 may have been fired with the help of other U.S. government agencies.  

Could the U.S. government turn against its own people, as in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and other despotic regimes?  If the photo--or the jury verdict--are any indication, it's a real concern.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Despotism and Repression: From Libya to Our Own Backyard

In Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria, police and army troops are shooting live ammo at peaceful demonstrators.  Could it happen here?

Last May, a fresh analysis of the Kent State University shooting, where four students protesting the Vietnam War were gunned down by the Ohio National Guard in 1970, found the violence was no accident.  Nor was it the result of nervous underlings acting against orders.  Commands were issued.  Reviewing old tapes, two audio experts working at the request of the Cleveland Plain Dealer removed extraneous noises from the recording.  A voice yells “Guard,” and seconds later orders “Prepare to Fire!”

Just last month, a 71-year-old peaceful protestor was tackled and beaten for wordlessly turning his back on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she lectured an audience at George Washington University about supporting freedom of expression in the Arab world. Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst, Army intelligence officer and current member of Veterans-for-Peace, was left bruised, bloodied and handcuffed after being hustled from the room for standing in silent protest.  Charges of disorderly conduct against McGovern were later dropped.

Also last month, while tens of thousands of labor activists rallied outside the Wisconsin state capitol to protest laws that would deprive public employee unions of the right to strike, the Assistant Attorney General in neighboring Indiana sent out a tweet suggesting that riot police “use live ammunition” to clear away the demonstrators, whom he described as “political enemies” and “thugs.”  Was  the Assistant Attorney General just joking or using over the top language?  Called by a reporter from Mother Jones to clarify his remarks, the official responsible for upholding the state’s laws proclaimed “You’re damned right I advocate deadly force.”

The U.S. Army Field Manual on Civil Disturbance Operations states that “gatherings in protest are recognized rights of any person or group, regarding of where U.S. forces may be operating.  This fundamental right is protected under the Constitution of the US.”  The manual goes on to caution, however, that seemingly peaceful protestors may be unwitting stooges for terrorists, anarchists or other provocateurs who must be met with deadly force if needed.  So the manual advises that “non-lethal shooters must have the means to transition to lethal rounds, if required … There is no such thing as a non-lethal mission.”

No, I’m not comparing our country to Libya or Syria.  But we would be foolish to think it couldn’t happen here.  Against live ammo, the First Amendment is a defenseless piece of paper.  The only thing that keeps our country from turning into an armed camp or police state is the people’s determination to speak out wherever tyranny arises—especially when it’s in our own backyard.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Could Jesus Get A License?

The debate in New Mexico about who can get a driver’s license is part of a bigger national conversation. We’re asking who’s a citizen, who belongs, who’s entitled to public services like healthcare and education, who’s an insider and who’s outside the circle of our compassion?

Who is my neighbor, as Jesus put it? It’s illuminating to think about this debate in the context of Christian history. Back in the time of Jesus, of course, Rome was the world’s superpower, like America today. Big armies, gap between the rich and poor, a veneer of republican government laid over a corrupt regime. And back then, being a citizen of Rome was a big deal, just as having an American passport is a big thing now.

If I recall my Sunday School lessons, for example, Paul was a Roman citizen. Remember Paul? That’s how he managed to do so much traveling. He was in Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia, Rome, planting churches and spreading the gospel. Old Paul had his travel documents. Nobody quite knows how or why he managed to claim citizenship, but being a bona fide citizen saved him more than once. Because being a citizen back then, as now, meant privileges. You couldn’t be arbitrarily imprisoned if you were a citizen. You couldn’t be flogged or crucified. Being a citizen meant you had protection of the laws.

In contrast, for example, to a man like Jesus who wasn’t a citizen, who was undocumented, an illegal, who probably never traveled more than 50 miles from the place he was born because he didn’t have his papers.

Jesus wasn’t exactly a slave, but was still the lowest of the low in a caste system where some people had rights and other people were expendable. He was the kind of guy who of course didn’t have any right to a fair trial. The sort who associated with questionable characters …was suspected of criminal activity … lacking any visible means of support. And of course Jesus spent his life caring for and ministering to the underdogs, the outcasts, the foreigners and aliens and other outsiders like himself that were looked on as human trash by respectable society.

We need to remember our Sunday School lessons as we participate in this current debate in New Mexico. We need to ask not just “What would Jesus do?” but “Who would Jesus be?” if he were to appear again here, now, this legislative session.

Maybe he’d be a child, born into this country, but now threatened with being relegated to throw-away status. Maybe his parents would be working people, like so many undocumented laborers, doing janitorial or agricultural work or the other dirty jobs that have to get done and that proper citizens don’t want. He probably wouldn’t even speak Latin, or English, or whatever the official language is. That’s probably who he’d be: a brown baby, a child living on the margins.

And if he were here today, he’d be reminding us and reminding our Governor that everybody is somebody. That the tens of thousands of residents of New Mexico called “illegals” are actually mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, they’re employees, taxpayers and contributors to our economy, not contraband or sub-human refuse but human beings like ourselves. Maybe not citizens of the United States. But still citizens of that kingdom of justice and compassion that Jesus spoke of.

I know there are more practical arguments for why it makes sense to make sure all the drivers on our public roads are licensed and tested, insured and registered. But I’m no expert on traffic safety or public policy. I’d just like to ask our legislators and Governor to ask themselves the religious and moral questions that should be part of this debate:

“What would Jesus do? And who is my neighbor”

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

An Interview with Pagan Pages

Pagan Pages: Hello Gary! It is a pleasure to meet you. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself first? You are a minister of a Unitarian Universalist Church, can you tell us a bit about it?

Gary Kowalski: Unitarian Universalism is a faith that embraces of people of all beliefs and backgrounds. I have pagans, atheists, Buddhists and Christians in my congregation, who like the freedom to find their own answers and learn from those on differing spiritual paths. We’ve been around since colonial times in America. Figures like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who identified themselves as Unitarians, were busy making a political revolution but also demanded the right to independent opinion in the religious sphere. In fact, many of the Founding Fathers drew more inspiration from the pagan authors of classical Greece and Rome than from the Bible. Even then, they were looking to nature rather than scripture or traditional Christian doctrine as the primary revelation of divinity.

PP:What made you decide to write an alphabet book?

GK: As children, we naturally appreciate Mother Earth and other living creatures. Research shows that young kids, for instance, dream about animals constantly. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson thinks human beings are endowed with “biophilia,” an inborn attraction to butterflies and pinecones and polar bears as part of our evolutionary inheritance. Too often that inborn sense of awe and reverence disappears as we age. So a book for children makes perfect sense.

PP:Why base it on Earth Day?

GK: People of every religious tradition can embrace Earth Day. It’s not a sectarian holiday, but a moment to consider our interdependence with air, sun, water and soil and re-commit to preserving the environment for future generations. The ecological crisis is really a spiritual crisis. The political will to save the Earth can only arise when individuals of every religion begin to realize that the planet does not belong to us but is the property of God or the Great Spirit or Maha Devi (the Hindu Goddess) or whatever name you give to that creative mystery. We’re just holding the world in trust.

PP:What was your inspiration behind the book?

GK: My own mystical moments have come through relationships with animals, like my dog Chinook whom I once called my “spiritual guide.” So I tend to think that there’s a bit of nature worshiper in all of us, not just Wiccans and Druids but garden-variety tree-huggers like me who experience a contact high from walking on the beach or watching the geese migrate south in the autumn. Jane Goodall reports that even chimpanzees perform a “rain dance” when there’s big weather in the sky. There’s a thrill from feeling connected to all those elemental forces, so much older and more powerful than our own transient egos.

PP:Did you choose the inspirational artwork that compliments your thoughts in the book or collaborate with the artist?

GK: No, but the illustrations by Rocco Baviera are delightful: colorful, simple, and lighthearted to accompany what I hope is a joyous message of kinship with creation.

PP:Did your role as a minister help with writing this book?

GK: The words originated as material for Sunday morning. So I didn’t set out with the intention to write a book, but to summon up a sense of the sacred circle that includes us all.

PP:Is your publisher a part of your ministry?

GK:Skinner House is the publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Several years ago they published a curriculum I wrote on World Religions, as well as a brief volume of personal essays titled Green Mountain Spring and Other Leaps of Faith.

PP:Have you written any other books?

GK: The Souls of Animals, my first book, and Goodbye Friend: Healing Wisdom For Anyone Who Has Ever Lost A Pet (both from New World Library) have been translated into six languages and sold in the hundreds of thousands. I’ve published two other titles with Lantern , Science and the Search for God and The Bible According To Noah: Theology As If Animals Mattered. Finally, there’s Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America’s Founding Fathers (BlueBridge Publishing) which came out in 2008. You’ll find all my books on Amazon or, better yet, you can order them through your local, independent bookstore.

PP:  Although, Gary Himself, is not a pagan, his earth worship has inspired us and we hope it inspires you and your children, as well.  Thank you Gary for your time and your thoughts! Your book is beautiful and has taught us about giving thanks for our everyday.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Benediction for Martin

This afternoon I delivered a benediction for the Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration of our local NAACP.   Thinking of what to say, I was reminded of how Martin managed to weave together the Republican and Biblical strands of our history, as in his 1963 “Dream” speech. 

 This may be the sign of great public rhetoric in America.  Lincoln was a master at combining the two, and the Founding generation employed this technique skillfully, so that even Deists like Thomas Paine could invoke a divine blessing on the Revolution and its outcome, as in his pamphlet The Crisis:

I have as little superstition in me as any man living, but my secret opinion has ever been, and still is, that God Almighty will not give up a people to military destruction, or leave them unsupportedly to perish, who have so earnestly and so repeatedly sought to avoid the calamities of war.

The Biblical vocabulary lifts the people’s struggle for freedom above the plane of a naked collision of self-interest, endowing their aspirations with ultimate significance.  At the same time, the Republican strain, skeptical and plainspoken, demands that policy choices (war or no war, for instance) have some down-to-earth, secular justification.  “Thus sayeth the Lord” is not an argument likely to carry much weight in a pluralistic public square.

Well, with these ruminations in mind, here’s the brief blessing I gave at today’s event:

Grateful for the labors of those past, giants like Martin and Rosa,
Let us be thankful too for the work still to be done,
Grateful that we have an opportunity to serve, to make a difference,
To bring release to the captives and good news to the poor,
To proclaim liberty throughout the land and to build a more perfect union,
A union where every child will have an equal start in life,
A union that invests more in people than in weapons of war,
Where hate has no place
And the scales of justice do not discriminate,
Where those whose sweat and toil built this great land can share equitably in the abundance they helped create,
Where the dreams of the fathers become the children’s realities.
May God bless us in this task and bless the nation this was meant to be.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Dream Deferred?

As America commemorates Martin Luther King’s legacy, expect repeated clips of “I Have A Dream.” But most folks have forgotten the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” where Martin spoke, was as much a labor rally as a civil rights protest.

A. Philip Randolph, head of the biggest black union in the country, conceived the event. The money that paid for King’s microphone came from the United Auto Workers, enabling the orator to remind listeners that, a century after legal emancipation, African Americans still lived on “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Owing her citizens justice, the United States had instead given people of color a bad check—one marked “insufficient funds,” King said.

Unfortunately, little has changed. A recent report on the nation’s growing gap between rich and poor showed that African American women have a personal net worth of just $5 for every $40,000 owned by their white counterparts, a shocking statistic based on U.S. government numbers. Jobless rates for Latinos hover at thirteen percent and for blacks at sixteen percent, minorities whose children are roughly three times more likely than white youngsters to live in poverty. Foreclosures and layoffs have devastated what little savings these families possessed.

Yet as Congress convenes in Washington and state legislatures gather, budget makers are likely to cry “insufficient funds” when faced with bills for education, health care, public transportation, affordable college tuition and other programs poor and working people rely on for survival. Despite a black President in the White House and an Hispanic governor in New Mexico’s Round House, the temptation will be strong to balance the books on the backs of those who can least afford it.

The biggest deficits we face are moral rather than financial, as King warned, who prophesied shortly before his death that “we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”

"On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

Today he might add that a country where a young black man has a greater chance of going to prison than attending college needs restructuring. An economy where Warren Buffet’s secretary pays taxes at a higher rate than her billionaire boss needs to change. More and more Americans are teetering on the edge of destitution, just a pink slip or emergency room visit away from hunger and homelessness, while bonuses return to Wall Street and CEO salaries soar. Meanwhile, our nation spends more on war and armaments than the rest of the world combined. We are at a tipping point where, in Dr. King’s words, a “revolution of values” is in order.

Until then, his rhetoric remains an uncashed promissory note. And as ordinary Americans watch the “vast ocean of material prosperity” of the 1960’s recede like an outgoing tide, their elected representatives call for further belt-tightening and cuts to social welfare.

Are America’s vaults of opportunity really empty? Or do the coffers just need to be equitably distributed? The United States has unmatched resources, enough to guarantee every worker a living wage and dignified retirement, every child the schooling they need and a clean environment to grow up in. Only poverty of imagination keeps us from sharing in the Dream.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Incendiary Speech

Violent rhetoric has consequences.  And the politics of character assassination and personal destruction inevitably lead to outbursts or thuggery and hooliganism that threaten our democracy.

We saw it yesterday at a mall north of Tucson when a gunman opened fire at a “Congress on Your Corner” event, critically injuring Representative Gabrielle Giffords, killing a federal judge, a nine year old girl and at least three others.

Giffords had been targeted online by Sarah Palin’s Political Action Committee, which featured a map of her Ar;izona district framed in rifle cross hairs with an exhortation to “take aim.”

Yes, Jared Lee Loughner, the shooter, was a troubled young man.  But he wasn’t acting in a vacuum.  He was operating in an environment where Gifford’s congressional opponent held an M-16 fundraiser, offering the chance to blast away with automatic weapons in return for campaign cash, and where Sharron Angle, running for Congress in nearby Nevada told a right-wing radio host last summer that “if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying, ‘my goodness what can we do to turn this country around?’ I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.”

Naturally, yesterday’s gunfire has  been condemned by leaders on both sides of the aisle, Democrat and Republican.  But no one is taking responsibility for the kind of hateful, incendiary speech that ignites such vigilantism.  And as long as politicians like Palin are rewarded for shooting  from the lip, blood is likely to flow.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Sarah Palin & Osama Bin Laden

Last spring, Sarah Palin asked her followers to "take aim" at Democrats including Gabrielle Giffords, placing the Arizona representative's name in rifle cross hairs.  Today Congresswoman Giffords was shot through the brain at a constituent meet-up north of Tucson, critically injured in a flurry of gunfire where at least five others,  including a U.S. Federal Judge, were fatally wounded.

Is it a surprise that violent rhetoric leads to violent results?  That character assassination leads to actual mayhem?  Just how are Mama Grizzly's remarks different than Osama Bin Laden's exhortation to his followers to "kill Americans"?  The connections of the gunman to the Tea Party or radical Republican movements are unknown at this point.  Doubtless leaders of both parties will condemn the shooting.  But blood will continue as long as cult figures like Palin are permitted to shoot from the lip.  

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