2019-02-10

Justice on Earth: Chapter 8

The 2018-19 UUA Common Read is:

This week, I'm looking at Chapter 8: Pamela Sparr’s essay, "Transforming Unitarian Universalist Culture: Stepping Out of Our Silos and Selves.” Sparr relates that when she taught about climate justice at a summer institute, she had been warned that participants didn’t want to be “bummed out.” Anyone who speaks about environmental issues faces that question: how to be inspiring rather than paralyzing or depressing. This is what I have said and firmly believe: reality is never depressing. Depression comes from attempts to block out reality. When those attempts fail and awareness seeps in, mixing and conflicting with our desire for denial, depression is the result. Embrace of reality – with no desire to deny any of it – is many things: fascinating, challenging, invigorating, even oddly peaceful. Reality may be beautiful, dangerous, or both. But reality can never be depressing. It's denial that's depressing.

Still, embracing reality is no easy thing. I’m not always great at that myself. But when I’m bummed out or just bored, I ask myself, “what is the reality here that I’m resisting rather than embracing?”

Sparr’s approach is to call for:

(1) a bolder prophetic imagination. We need to speak, among ourselves and to others, in visionary ways, showing humanity a better version of itself, offering moral clarity, and an unflinching insistence on justice.

(2) the courage and capacity to talk religiously. UUs are disproportionately involved in environmental organizations, yet when we show up for this work, our UUism is often invisible. “Our challenge is to move out of our secular skin and to wear our UU skin all the time” (83) – to claim our identity and authority as religious persons. Grounded in our faith, a moral language of hope and justice takes the center – and proposed technical solutions move to the periphery. This means UUs must get comfortable and articulate in about our profound sense of the sacredness of all life, the dignity and worth of every person and every threatened species, our wonder and awe and the interconnected mystery of existence. Faith-rooted solidarity is based on knowing that “my well-being is totally and irrevocably tied up with yours. My liberation is dependent on yours” (84). Acting religiously means that the opposition is never demonized, never “othered,” always loved.

(3) getting out of our silos. Racial injustice, climate change, sexual harassment and abuse, LGBTQ discrimination, environmental degradation and species extinction are all interconnected and all have the same solution: building a world of justice and equality. We can’t let ourselves get into a “single issue” silo.

(4) radical relationship building. “We are going to have to stretch ourselves to befriend and collaborate with many different types of people and movements, including those with whom some of us may feel theologically uncomfortable” (90).

(5) becoming more countercultural. Current culture is characterized by a disconnect from nature and a casual acceptance of power hierarchies (and thus of the injustice and inequality that necessarily inheres in institutionalized hierarchy). Our denomination must transform itself into one that is thoroughly counter to these characteristics.

Sounds to me like a five-fold approach for embracing reality.

Questions.
Do you know how to go about doing any of these five? Which ones? How?

For my reflection/summary on previous chapters, click the title:
  1. Jennifer Nordstrom, "Intersectionality, Faith, and Environmental Justice"
  2. Paula Cole Jones, "The Formation of the Environmental Justice Movement"
  3. Sheri Prud'homme, "Ecotheology"
  4. Sofia Betancourt, "Ethical Implications of Environmental Justice"
  5. Adam Robersmith, "Cherishing Our World: Avoiding Despair in Environmental Justice Work"
  6. Peggy Clarke, Matthew McHale, "Becoming Resilient: Community Life for a New Age
  7. Kathleen McTigue, "Drawing on the Deep Waters: Contemplative Practice in Justice-Making

2019-02-07

Justice on Earth: Chapter 7

This week I'm reflecting on Kathleen McTigue’s essay, "Drawing on the Deep Waters: Contemplative Practice in Justice-Making” – Chapter 7 of the 2018-19 UUA Common Read, Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class and the Environment.

UUs, notes McTigue, “agree broadly that any religion worth the name should help shift our behaviors and actions toward the greater good.” This, she says, “is necessary and laudable, but insufficient.” McTigue explains five reasons we need to do the inner as well as the outer work.

1. Spiritual practices ground us in something bigger than ourselves. “We are connected to and are part of a vast unfolding that we cannot entirely grasp.” Living is not a private affair of the individual – we belong to each other and the universe. When we waste time, we are squandering the universe’s opportunity. This spiritual awareness also helps us attend to care for our fragile planet.

2. Spiritual practices help us stay in the present moment. Incessant stories play out in our heads. If you pay attention to it, you’ll be appalled at your “monkey mind” – the repetitive, boring, and judgmental running commentary going through our heads virtually every waking moment. “Spiritual practices help quiet the noise in our own heads.” This reduces our reactivity and thus reduces internal conflict within a justice movement that occurs when we trigger each other’s unexamined emotional reactions.

3. Spiritual practices cultivate the qualities we most want to bring forward. “Despite what we aim for in our moments of high aspiration, we get caught up in the small stuff. Spiritual practices help tilt us back toward our aspirations.”

4. Spiritual practices remind us that the things we most want to change in the world also exist in ourselves. “If deep inside us we are seething with anger, how shall we be peacemakers? If deep inside us there are the seeds of greed, how will we shift the grotesque chasm between the rich and the poor? Spiritual practices keep us hones, mindful of the fact that the change we want to work for in our world need to be undertaken with a willingness to be changed ourselves.”

5. Spiritual practices help sustain us through confusion and despair. “Despair, discouragement, helplessness, and confusion may all still go parading through our hearts – but spiritual practices help us hold them within a larger context. . . . In the long arc toward justice, our best efforts are just one small part. This allows us to hold even our despair within the larger frame of this lifetime work. Grounded again in hope, we can then bring that hope back out with us, to all the others who are struggling to find their way in this beautiful, fragile, difficult world.”

Questions
1. What’s your spiritual practice, and how does it integrate with your justice work?
2. Have you had experiences in your justice work where you later wished you’d been more spiritually grounded?

Yours in faith,
Meredith

Justice on Earth: Chapter 6

This week I'm reflecting on Peggy Clarke and Matthew McHale’s essay, "Becoming Resilient: Community Life for a New Age” – Chapter 6 of the 2018-19 UUA Common Read, Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class and the Environment.

The prophetic task, the authors note, is not merely to decry injustice. It’s more broadly about nurturing, nourishing, and evoking, an alternative community. The essay then develops in two parts:

1. Resilience-based organizing. Here we learn about Movement Generation, which offers trainings, resources, and support to social movements led by communities of color or low income. Movement Generation’s organizing approach is rooted in community “in a way that reorients power to be more local and democratic.”

The approach is inspired by such examples as the Black Panthers and MST (Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement -- Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra). The Black Panthers’ less famous programs provided services such as free breakfast for school children, free medical clinics and drug rehab, clothing distribution, and classes on politics and economics. In Brazil, MST peacefully occupies unused land, securing it for the dispossessed. MST sets up cooperative farms, constructs houses, schools, and clinics while working for environmental sustainability and promoting Indigenous culture and gender equality.

2. Congregations as centers for community resilience. “Houses of worship will need to become centers of hope and resilience.” Doing this will entail congregational engagement with the communities around us -- offering meeting places and shelter, learning centers for reskilling, among other things. “We can start by identifying local ‘front-line communities’ – low-income communities and communities of color who bear the brunt of the devastation of the modern industrial system and who are leaders in the struggle to shift toward a more just and sustainable future.” Once such a prospective community is identified, the congregation’s task is solidarity, listening, relationship-building, humility, and a willingness to take on a support role when asked – NOT to expect to swoop in as the savior or the experts.

The authors conclude: “Without authentic partnership and without clearly understanding the systemic transformation required, our response to the current climate crisis will be insufficient. . . . Building resilient communities is the transformative response these times demand.”

Questions
What communities around CUUC are most directly affected by issues in which environment and race come together? How might CUUC develop a relationship of solidarity with those communities?

One response to the essay might be: “I’m convinced that we need to commit ourselves to supporting and nurturing communities of resilience. But I don’t see any need for congregations. Congregations should simply fold – transferring their land, buildings, and members’ energy to organizations like Movement Generation.” How would you respond to this suggestion? The members of a support network for resilient community would share a kind of “secular faith” – is that faith enough?

Yours in faith,
Meredith

Justice on Earth: Chapter 5

This week I'm reflecting on Adam Robersmith's essay, "Cherishing Our World: Avoiding Despair in Environmental Justice Work" -- Chapter 5 of the 2018-19 UUA Common Read, Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class and the Environment.

The situation is dire, Robersmith reminds us:
“We are affecting our climate and ecosystem in ways that are detrimental to life on the planet and to how we live….We should have changed as a nation long ago, yet we have not….Research shows that our acts disproportionately affect the poor and oppressed all over the world, yet we continue to use harmful technologies and resources.”
Trying to scare people into changing behaviors and policies hasn’t worked terribly well. Robersmith is reminded of our Universalist ancestors. When the predominant theology used fear (of hell) to induce righteousness, our ancestors pointed out:
“The preaching of future rewards and punishments, for the purpose of inducing people to love God and moral virtue, is not only useless, but pernicious.” (Hosea Ballou, 1834)
Rather than extrinsic punishments or rewards, argued Ballou, we ought to preach that God and moral virtue are intrinsically worthy and lovely.

Along similar lines, Robersmith urges that the value of the environment lies not in financial measures or apocalypse prevention. Rather, it is intrinsically worthy and lovely.
“If we, as a nation, a people, or a species, loved this planet as our Universalist ancestors understood loving God, we would have already made so many different choices about how we live on this Earth and with each other.”
In particular, by turning away from fear-based arguments about economies and catastrophes threatening all humanity, we can, instead, attend to localized effects on marginalized populations: mountaintop removal and strip mining degrade environments of poor communities; water poisoned with pollutants flows disproportionately into poorer communities of color; for example.

What Robersmith doesn’t mention is nonattachment to results. Of course, we should as lovingly and as rationally as possible discern strategies most likely to succeed, but sometimes we’ll guess wrong, and other times, even when our strategy has the best odds of success, we will still fail. Plan carefully for success, then let go of attachment to whether success happens. “The victory is in the doing,” as Gandhi said – not in the outcome.

“Turning off the water while brushing our teeth,” says Robersmith, “makes a difference and is a necessary next act.” But this is either hyperbole or fantasy. If it’s necessary, then one person failing to turn off the water one time means the planet is doomed. In fact, one person saving one quart of water per brush does not, in itself, make any measurable difference to the Earth – especially here in New York where water is plentiful. But it makes a difference to the one who does it. Practices of care change us even if they don’t change the planet. And if we are changed, we are more likely to influence others and do things that do make a difference. The victory, to repeat, is in the doing.

In leaving out the role of nonattachment to results, the risk is that we may disavow fear-mongering only to find ourselves mongering shame.

For my reflection/summary on previous chapters, click the title:
  1. Jennifer Nordstrom, "Intersectionality, Faith, and Environmental Justice"
  2. Paula Cole Jones, "The Formation of the Environmental Justice Movement"
  3. Sheri Prud'homme, "Ecotheology"
  4. Sofia Betancourt, "Ethical Implications of Environmental Justice"
Yours in faith,
Meredith

2019-01-11

Justice on Earth: Chapter 4

This week I'm reflecting on Sofia Betancourt's essay, "Ethical Implications of Environmental Justice" -- Chapter 4 of the 2018-19 UUA Common Read, Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class and the Environment.

Betancourt got me thinking about the whiteness of the American environmental movement. Searching around, I learned that a survey released 2018 Oct
“found that about one-third of African-Americans, half of whites, and two-thirds of Latinos and Asians consider themselves to be environmentalists.” (Anthropocene, 2018 Oct 30)
OK, so environmentalism is not just a white people’s thing. But it is perceived that way. The survey also found that
“across racial and ethnic groups, people tended to underestimate how concerned people of color are about the environment, and overestimate how concerned white people are.” (Anthropocene, 2018 Oct 30)
Indeed, mainstream environmentalist organizations – groups like the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Nature Conservancy – have, through their long history, consisted largely of upper- and middle-class whites focused on protecting wilderness areas. These groups have made the face of US environmentalism disproportionately white. More to the point, their focus -- protecting wilderness areas – has racial justice implications.

Consider the question of where to put waste facilities, landfills, dumps, and the most polluting industries. We clearly aren’t going to put them in wealthy, white neighborhoods. So (until we find a way to eliminate such pollution sources), that leaves two options: put them in poorer and darker-skinned neighborhoods, or put them out in an area away from human habitation. The historically predominantly-white environmental organizations (Sierra Club, NRDC, etc) work to keep industries, landfills, etc. from encroaching on our uninhabited areas -- thereby unwittingly pushing toxic pollution into poorer, black or Latino neighborhoods.

Betancourt cautions against
“a perilous tendency to sacrifice entire populations of our human family in the name of acting quickly.”
Black and brown folks’
“experiences of environmental racism and injustice are erased by a movement born out of an imagined pristine wilderness empty of humanity.”
She cites Aldo Leopold’s ethic –
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
This influential principle, however, says nothing about environmental justice. It tends to treat “humanity” as a monolith – something to rein in for the sake of the planet. Instead -- or, rather, in addition -- we must attend to how consequences and risks of environmental destruction are unequally distributed within the human population.

Questions
  • Our first principle commits us to the worth and dignity of all – and thus to combat racism. Our seventh principle commits us respect the interdependent web – and thus to combat environmental harm. How do you balance and honor both of these imperatives in your spiritual life?
  • American individualism weakens the ethic of mutual care and engagement necessary for honoring the dignity of all. What are your relationships with communities of color? How might you reach out and deepen those relationships, from an ethic of care and mutuality?

2019-01-05

Justice on Earth: Chapter 3

The 2018-19 UUA Common Read: Manish Mishra-Marzetti and Jennifer Nordstrom, eds., Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class and the Environment. Available from UUA Bookstore HERE; from Amazon HERE.

This week, chapter 3: Sheri Prud'homme, "Ecotheology."
“A prevalent theme in ecotheology is the radical interdependence of all existence and the accompanying mandate to view humankind as embedded in a complex web of relationships with other organisms that have intrinsic value.”
With these echoes of the UU 7th principle – and the 1st – ecotheology is substantially connected to UU theology. Significant ecotheologians include Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, John Cobb, Joanna Macy, Sallie McFague, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Catherine Keller.
“All that exists in in relationship with everything. As Ivone Gebara writes in Longing for Running Water, it ‘is not a mechanical interdependence but a living one: a sacred interdependence that is vibrant and visceral’.”
Ecology becomes ecotheology when it encounters a sense of mystery, when the study of the relations of life forms to one another and their environment evokes awe and wonder. Theology, historically and currently, may serve the interests of dominance and empire by coopting God into a story that underwrites the social inequities of its time. Mindfulness of mystery can help protect against such cooptation. African-American writers such as theologian James Cone and Shamara Shantu Riley express the connections between oppression of people, exploitation of animals, and ravaging of nature.

For many ecotheologians, God does not precede the cosmos, but arose and unfolds with the cosmos. Ecotheology lends itself to pantheism (God and the universe are the same thing), or to panentheism (God and creation are inextricably intertwined, but not identical, as they participate together in creation’s unfolding).
“As McFague explains in The Body of God, ‘Everything that is, is in God and God is in all things and yet God is not identical to the universe, for the universe is dependent on God in a way that God is not dependent on the Universe’.”
Unitarians and Universalists of the 19th-century foreshadowed many of ecotheology’s concerns. UUs today
“are increasingly able to participate powerfully in ecumenical and multi-faith efforts when we draw on God language and images that are inclusive, expansive, immanent, and intermingled with the unfolding of creation.”
The writings of ecotheologians provides us a language for connecting with people of other traditions yet one UUs can use with integrity.

Ecotheology’s ethic emerges from seeing that the source of evil always lies in a good and necessary need taken to excess. Virtue is skill in balancing all needs.

Questions
  • What seems to you attractive about ecotheology? Are there aspects that give you pause?
  • How does the power of beauty affect your work for justice?
  • Ecotheologians are apt to say “God (the holy, the sacred) is in all of the created universe,” or that “God (the holy, the sacred) is the universe,” or that “God (the holy, the sacred) is creativity itself.” How might these thoughts support the work for environmental justice?