Happy Interdependence Day (Earth Day -- April 22, 2012)

posted Apr 21, 2012, 6:33 PM by Neal Jones   [ updated Apr 21, 2012, 6:35 PM ]

          We began our service this morning the way we begin every service -- by reminding ourselves that Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religion.  We are a covenantal religion, which means that we don’t have to believe the same in order to treat each other the same -- with respect, equity, compassion, and dignity.  The values which guide our behavior are embodied in our seven UU Principles, as listed on the back of our order of service.  Barbara Wells, one of the authors of the adult religious ed curriculum we recently completed, Articulating Your UU Faith, suggests that the first and the last Principles are the two pillars which uphold the other five.  The first affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and the seventh affirms the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.  Wells observes that these two Principles state what we affirm about life, while the other Principles state how we agree to be together.

          What she doesn't observe is that our first and last Principles exist in tension because they represent two poles of our humanity.  On one hand, we have a need for independence -- to realize our dignity and worth as a human being, to appreciate our uniqueness, that there has never existed nor will there ever exist another person exactly like us (in regard to some of us, thank God that's the case), to develop our potential to become whole human beings, to express ourselves loud and clear, to be free to think and feel, speak and act in accordance with who we are, to be free to be you and me.  On the other hand, we have a need for interdependence -- to be in relationship, to be meaningfully connected with others, to belong, to be at home, to give and receive support, to understand another and to be understood by another, to trust and to be trusted, to share ourselves honestly and safely with another, to experience intimacy.  These two necessary poles of our humanity are not mutually exclusive, but they do exist in a tug of war with each other.  Can I be my genuine self and be in a genuine relationship at the same time? 

          That is the challenge we face in every relationship in which we participate.  We face it in our friendships.  I want to confide in you about a problem I'm having; you want to keep things light and cheery.  Can we remain true to ourselves while remaining true to each other?  We face it at home.  You think we should spend our tax refund on a vacation; I think we should save it for a rainy day.  Can we remain true to ourselves while remaining true to each other?  We face it at work.  The boss wants me to do more with less more quickly; I can barely keep my head above water now.  Can we remain true to ourselves while remaining true to each other?  We face it as a nation.  This group sees diversity as a threat to our national unity; that group sees diversity as enriching our national life.  Can we remain true to ourselves while remaining true to each other?  We face it as a congregation.  You want to put money in our budget to construct a patio; I want to put money in the budget for a ministerial hot tub.  Can we remain true to ourselves while remaining true to each other?  Probably not in that case.

          In a nutshell, here's what I want to say this morning:  you and I live in a culture that wallows at one end of that polarity while being totally inept at knowing how to live at the other end.  We are experts about independence, but we are imbeciles regarding our interdependence.  We have succeeded at creating the most individualistic culture in the world and in history.  We pride ourselves for our rugged individualism and pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  We prize individual freedom, individual rights, individual choice, and individual initiative above all else.  We are not a "we" culture; we are a "me" culture.

          Like adolescents (and I don't use that word disparagingly), our ancestors declared their independence from the Mother Land and, in Lincoln's words, "brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty."  Our Declaration of Independence declares our independence not only from King George but our independence as human beings:  "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [persons] are created equal, that that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  Our Constitution created a democratic government with a separation of powers and checks and balances to protect individual rights, and we have amended that Constitution with a Bill of Rights to insure such individual rights as freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom of assembly.  These rights represent freedom from but not freedom for.  Freedom of speech does not ensure that a person will have anything worthwhile to say.  Freedom of worship does not assure that a person will worship a worthy god.  Freedom of assembly does not guarantee that people will gather together for a worthwhile cause.  Our political freedom assures consent of the governed, but it does not assure that the governed will adequately govern themselves.  I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin's somber warning that in a democracy, we get the government we deserve. 

          We have pushed political freedom so far that we can impose virtually no restraint on the amount of money flooding into our political system.  Our government is being sold to the highest bidder with bailouts, subsidies, government contracts, tax breaks, exemptions, and other favors flowing to those with the means to pay the lobbyists and buy the politicians.  Twenty years ago, Roger Tamraz, a wealthy oilman, paid $300,000 to get a private meeting with President Clinton to secure a pipeline in central Asia.  At a congressional hearing investigating the deal, Mr. Tamraz admitted under oath:  "Look, when it comes to money and politics, you make the rules. I'm just playing by your rules."  Asked if he had bothered to vote in the last election, he replied, "No, senator, I think money's more important than the vote." 

          That was twenty years before the Supreme Court's infamous ruling in Citizens United, which defined money as speech, giving corporations the right to spend undisclosed, unlimited amounts of speech on elections.  We saw the pernicious effects of Citizens United here in little old South Carolina during our most recent Presidential primary held on January 21, appropriately enough, the second anniversary of Citizens United.  Our small state was subjected to literally millions of dollars of ads financed not by candidates but by groups with innocuous names such as Winning Our Future, Make Us Great Again, Endorse Liberty, Our Destiny, American Bridge, and Red, White and Blue.  These corporate-owned super PACs outspent the Presidential candidates by more than 2-to-1 -- so much so that the candidates were crowded out of the prime TV ad spots.  In some instances, these corporations are shells set up to dump millions in a state's primary and then dissolved as soon as the election is over.  We are ceasing to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people and are becoming a government of Goldman Sachs, by Exxon-Mobile, and for the Koch brothers, which is why we need to pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.  The irony of our excessive individualism is that by pushing political freedom beyond the breaking point, we are losing our political freedom. 

          Our excessive individualism manifests itself in our economic system, in free market capitalism.  Don't get me wrong, our capitalistic economic system has produced unprecedented wealth, opportunity for advancement, and individual freedom.  But blind faith always leads to folly and cruelty.  We see this in Fundamentalism, which blindly follows a literalistic Bible and authoritarian preachers down the path to bigotry and persecution.  We see this in nationalism, which blindly says, "My country right or wrong," as it marches down the road to imperialism, war, and self-aggrandizement. 

          In recent years, we have witnessed a libertarian, anti-government defense of free market capitalism that rivals religion with its blind faith in the "invisible hand" of the marketplace to regulate itself and bring prosperity to all.  You would think that we would have learned our lesson after the Great Depression, which was brought on, not by too much government intervention, but by a lack it.  The cause of the savings-and-loan crisis in the early '90s and the cause of the collapse of the financial institutions in the Great Recession from which we are still recovering has been the dismantling of those Depression-era regulations that were put in place during the New Deal to prevent financial institutions from overextending themselves.  It's one thing if Wall Street fat cats gamble with their own money, but when they gamble with other people's money, then they risk bringing down the entire country. 

          Let us be clear about the realities of the free market.  Corporations are amoral.  They are not necessarily immoral, but they are certainly amoral.  They do not exist to promote peace, justice, democracy, or ecological responsibility.  Their sole purpose for existing is to make a profit.  Now there is nothing wrong with making a profit, but left to their own devices, corporations have only the limits of the greed of their stockholders and their CEOs as restraints.  As we have shockingly witnessed with the excesses of corporate executives' salaries and bonuses, greed doesn't offer much restraint.  Let me remind you that only days after receiving $38 billion in a government bailout that saved AIG from collapse, that company had the gall to spend half a million dollars for its top insurance agents to spend a week at a posh retreat in southern California and $86,000 for a hunting trip in England.  Greed doesn't provide much restraint.  Unfettered, unregulated capitalism always leads to overreaching and collapse and then rescue by the evil government. 

          Unfettered, unregulated capitalism leads to a world where it's every man for himself and where only the strong survive in a dog-eat-dog jungle.  That's not the kind of world I want to live in, and it's not the kind of America our parents and grandparents envisioned for us.  The American Dream has always been that our children would have a better life than we have had if they work hard and play by the rules.  Our parents and grandparents created a social contract that distributed the risks and burdens of life more equitably because they understood that while some of us arrived on these shores on the Mayflower and some in slave ships, some through Ellis Island and some across the Rio Grande, we are all in the same boat now.  They created a public safety net to catch us when we fall because everyone of us, sooner or later, falls to illness, accident, misfortune, and old age.  The strands of that safety net are police and fire protection, public parks, libraries, and highways, public schools and universities, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  One day it will include universal health care. 

          I don't suffer from the illusion that government is perfect or that it doesn't produce its own excesses, but government is the instrument of the commonwealth.  We need the government, as imperfect as it is, to protect the commonwealth from being bought off by private wealth because once air and water, education and health care are bought and sold for profit, then only the rich will have air, water, education, and health care, and the rest of us will get the crumbs that fall from their tables.  When it comes to the essentials of life, no one, no matter what side of the tracks they live on or what their daddy does for a living, no one should go without the essentials for life because people are human beings and every person has dignity simply because he or she is a human being.  The necessities of life are rights for all, not luxuries for a few.  The irony of our excessive individualism is that by pushing economic freedom beyond the breaking point, we are losing our economic freedom. 

          Our excessive individualism manifests itself in our religion. Americanized Christianity envisions each individual as standing alone before the judgment seat of God, stained with his or her sins, hoping to be spared from the eternal flames of hell.  An individual can purchase the necessary fire insurance by simply believing that Jesus is the son of God.  The traditional Christian understanding of salvation is about saving your own hide.  It’s an individualistic view of salvation. 

          We Unitarians long ago rejected the evangelical conception of salvation when we rejected the doctrine of Original Sin and a literal hell.  We embraced “salvation by character,” that people are "saved" by their own individual merit, by works more than faith, by education and self-discipline and self-improvement.  We may have left behind evangelical theology, but we still embrace individualism.  As I observed a few Sundays ago, we are a religious movement of the nonconformist Ralph Waldo Emerson, not the organizational Henry Whitney Bellows. 

          Unitarian history is not so much a record of the development of a church or an institution or a denomination.  It’s more like a Who’s Who list of successful individuals who used their tremendous talents to go out and do great things.  Great statesmen like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, John Marshall, Daniel Webster, and Adlai Stevenson.  Great writers like Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Burns, Charles Lamb, Charles Dickens, Hermann Melville, Bret Harte, May Sarton, e.e. cummings, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, and Mary Oliver.  Great scientists like Michael Servetus, Joseph Priestley, Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Darwin, and Linus Pauling.  Great social reformers like Susan B. Anthony, Julia Ward Howe, Henry David Thoreau, Dorothea Dix, Horace Mann, Clarence Darrow, Roger Baldwin, John Haynes Holmes, Clarence Skinner, Albert Schweitzer, and Whitney Young.  Each one of them made a name for his- or herself by going out and changing the world … as an individual.  That was their salvation.  The irony of our excessive individualism is that by pushing religious freedom beyond the breaking point, we are losing our ability to create community. 

          Like adolescents, our ancestors left home and came to this New World in order to be free to do as they pleased, and like adolescents, we have treated this continent as if it were a limitless playground for us to exploit, pillage, plow, burn, mine, extract, harvest, consume, pollute, take from, and dump on.  When we finished using one playground, we could always move west to find another.  This bountiful land gave rise to the explorer, the pioneer, the settler, the cowboy, the superhero, to Horatio Alger and the entrepreneurial spirit, to individual initiative.  But it also gave rise to the adolescent belief that the sky is the limit and that we can have it all.  Well, it's not, and we can't. 

          It's time to grow up, brothers and sisters.  The planet cannot sustain our lifestyle.  To borrow the language of my Baptist roots, we need to be reborn.  We need a conversion.  We need a new religion.  Our old religion portrays a supernatural God who is superior to, separate from, and above nature, and it portrays nature as being sinful, defiled, and tainted.  This supernatural God gives humankind charge to have dominion over creation, to subdue the earth, as if we were somehow separate from nature and as if the world were ours to have our way with it.  One of the most degrading experiences of life is to be used.  Through global warming, through melting glaciers and polar ice caps and rising sea levels, through more frequent and severe droughts, hurricanes, and tornadoes, through the growing shortage of oil, water, and other natural resources, through mass extinction of entire species that will never return, the earth is screaming out to us, "Quit using me!"

          We need to be converted to a new religion, a "green" religion that enables us to see that the earth is a living, breathing organism of which we are a part, that we are so interconnected with the planet that its health directly affects our health, its well-being directly influences our well-being, and its destiny directly determines our destiny.  We need a religion that enables us to realize our evolutionary heritage, that humankind is the expression of the consciousness and conscience of the earth.  No other species has evolved the capacity for consciousness and conscience.  We did not choose this role for ourselves; life has chosen us to be the earth’s guardians.

          We need to change the world, and we can begin by changing ourselves.  This is a case in which Gandhi's advice has never been truer:  "Be the change you want to see in the world."  You and I, as individuals, can literally change the world by changing our personal habits -- by taking our own canvass bags to the store instead of using those plastic bags that will be our landfills and oceans for centuries, by eating less meat and more fruits and vegetables so as to use less land and less resources, by replacing those incandescent with fluorescent bulbs, by collecting rainwater to water our lawns and gardens, by recycling our paper, glass, and plastic, by walking and biking more and driving less and driving a hybrid when we do drive, by buying energy efficient appliances when the old ones wear out.

          Our own Green Committee is sponsoring a Green Fair in the social hall immediately after the service. In addition to enjoying local and organic goodies, you'll find information on topics such as how to improve the energy efficiency of your home, tend to your garden with natural and simple household products, and healthy and ethical eating.  Our youth will showcase some of the ways they have reduced, reused, and recycled.  You will also have another chance to complete the Green Committee survey and enter your name in the raffle to win a $50 gift certificate to Rosewood Market.  The Green Committee was formed in 2009 as part of a national Unitarian Universalist effort to promote environmental awareness, practices, and justice.  In particular, the committee has focused on helping us become "greener" in our practices as a congregation (e.g., composting, collecting recyclables, using compostable plates, purchasing a more energy efficient HVAC system, etc.) and in educating our individual members of issues and practices that assist us in being green beyond our congregation.

          Today is Earth Day.  Let us affirm this day not only the inherent worth and dignity of every person but also the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.