Sermon for 1st Unitarian Society of Denver by Rev. Mike Morran delivered on January 3, 2010
Last summer I told you about a talk I had heard by Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed. Mark is an African American Unitarian Universalist minister, and for this particular presentation he used the wonderful title, The Perversity of Diversity: which he began with the observation that from the front door of his condominium in Toronto, Canada, he can look west and see the dome and spires of the Ukrainian Catholic church for the protection of the mother of God. But the closest church to his house is the Korean Deacon Church. A block or so beyond that is the Jehovah Witness Kingdom Hall with Portuguese language services, and a little further north is the Metropolitan Korean Church, and then St. Pauls Slovac Evangelical Lutheran. Other churches in his area are Philipino Baptist, African Methodist Episcopalian, Russian Orthodox, several synagogues, a mosque, and many others. He suspects that if you live in an urban area, you have a similar kind of diversity, and his question to us was “Where does your Unitarian Universalist congregation fit into this ethnic mix?”
Then he answered his own question, “You don’t know.” “You don’t think of yourself as an ethnic congregation. Well I’ve got news for you. You are. Our numbers…: 97.5 percent Euro-American, our language; good English, our style of worship; no shouted hallelujah’s here, our principles, seven of them and not a word about Jesus. We are shaped by our New England heritage, upper-middle class, progressive, North American values.” He notes that all the other churches he named are all about preserving their ethnic heritage, their unique language, cultural traditions, worship styles, and identity. He notes that as far has he knows, we are the only ones who manage to stubbornly cling to our defining ethnic language, music, practices, mores, and habits, all the while steadfastly insisting that we want to be more ethnically diverse. He calls this a study in denial. I’m not sharing all this to make us feel bad. In fact, one of Mark’s central points was that we should celebrate who we are. He thinks that if we want to take multiculturalism seriously, we should start with what all those other ethic groups already know about us. He also thinks that along with being more honest, more aware, and more realistic about our ethnic identity, we should also lighten up about it! There is nothing wrong with being an ethnic group in a world full of ethnic groups, and being positive about it is a whole lot more productive and healthy than beating ourselves up because we’re not something else. I share those observations from the Rev. Morrison-Reed because one of the things I’m after this morning is a realistic assessment. And because the denial we exhibit around our ethnic identity… is not the only kind of denial we do.
My real topic this morning is Cash Culture, and I am referring to the way in which the larger culture we live in, dominated as it is by materialism, consumerism, and Affluenza, I believe is even more of a burden than we realize. I want to examine this, and I want to do it in a way that shines a light on some of the denial we have around money. I’m going to borrow from Thandeka, another African American Unitarian Universalist minister, who notes that one of the cultural assumptions in Unitarian Universalism is that we are middle class, and relatively affluent. However, she believes this assumption is primarily cultural, and not backed up by the facts. Here are some facts.
80 percent of everything is owned by 20 percent of the population. Over half of everything; savings, stocks, real estate, ideas and other assets is owned by just 2 percent of the population. The lower 50%, half of the total population, owns less than 5% of the wealth, and the upward migration of this wealth into a tiny percentage of people has risen dramatically over the last thirty years. In that same time frame, productivity has risen by double digits, while real wages for American workers has actually fallen. In the current economy, we see more and more conglomeration as mergers, acquisitions, and greed reduce competition in the marketplace while jobs disappear, and smaller companies are forced out of business. We see all kinds of companies getting rid of high paying jobs, and lowering qualifications in order to hire lower paid workers. Unemployment is at its highest point since 1982.
The result of these trends is the most acute job and economic insecurity since the Great Depression. Downsizing has thoroughly shaken worker confidence, and Americans are far too fearful to risk standing up and making demands. Unemployment insurance, if you can get it, lasts only a few months, and the global labor market has undermined any reasonable bargaining power that might have once existed. These basic economic facts, Paul Krugman argues, have created one basic psychological fact for the typical American worker: it is anxiety.
Even a strong economy no longer means job security for most middle-class Americans -- and we know it. But this has not produced a meaningful rebellion. Instead it has resulted in frenzied attempts by downwardly mobile people trying to maintain the appearance of being well-off, and resulted in the accumulation of massive and crushing debt. Juliet B. Schor reminds us in The OverSpent American: (a book that I highly recommend, by the way) that something close to 30 percent of all American households live paycheck to paycheck; and another 40 percent live just three to four paychecks away from catastrophe. That’s 70 percent of American households living in great anxiety, in great denial, or perhaps in both. I know many of us are in this situation.
Schor also notes that if debts are subtracted from assets, the typical middle-class household has a net worth of less than $10,000, and she wonders how this could come to be. The math is not that hard to do. How could so many people regularly live so far beyond their means as to end up so financially fragile?
Her analysis, like that of Mark Morrison-Reed, is that culture once again prevails. The truth, she says, is that to be in America and not be affluent is for many – a little embarrassing. The constant drumbeat and lure of materialism and consumerism is so powerful and so subtle that it gets deeply internalized, until there is a certain and subtle kind of shame associated with not being wealthy…, and people go to incredible lengths, and make all kinds of lousy financial decisions (consciously or unconsciously) in order to cover up, cover over, or otherwise pretend that our financial reality isn’t really our financial reality. This is not affluence. Nor is it middle class. One of the great unspoken realities of Unitarian Universalism, and this congregation, is that while many of us fit this description, the cultural norm is that we don’t talk about it. Thandeka calls this condition middle-class poverty, and I would argue that to the extent this is true, the phrase applies not only to our assets, but also to our souls.
To be brief and very blunt, denial and avoidance are not signs of spiritual health!
Over the years, I’ve seen a dozen people drift away from church, and maybe a year or three years later they’ll come back or I’ll run into them somewhere and when I ask where they’ve been, they’ve told me that they lost their job, or had some other change in their financial situation and didn’t feel they could make their financial pledge to the church. And every time I ask myself, what have we missed, that these good people somehow didn’t get the message that they are loved and welcome no matter what their finances are? I’m not trying to beat us up, but I am trying to get at some important truths. On the other hand, let’s also look at a different kind of profile for Unitarian Universalists. Unitarian Universalists tend to be politically active, environmentally conscious, nature-oriented, involved in their communities, hard-working, and tolerant of different opinions and lifestyles.
It is the exact profile of civil servants, professors and school teachers, small business persons, middle managers, and University, non-profit, and health-care employees. In effect, we are middle America – we represent the group of professionals and quasi-professionals who keep America running by training its children, providing services, maintaining government, and our paying taxes.
Unitarian Universalists don’t do this alone, of course, but in many ways, our demographic is the backbone of the country and hardly anything would get done without us. Socially, we tend to be good neighbors, generous with our churches and our favorite causes, and we take care of our families and friends. We are readily and emotionally moved by the stories of people we perceive as less fortunate, we believe in working for social justice, and we tend to believe that humanity has not yet lived up to its potential…, somehow, some way, someday, (we tend to think…) better days are coming.
Sound like my kind of people. And with no hesitation, I count myself lucky and proud to be one of you.
I am not an economist, and no one knows what the economic situation is going to look like next year, or in five, or ten or fifty years from now. If economic security is something you value, certainly you should arm yourself as well as you can to survive whatever might come. But I want to suggest that there is another kind of security that has nothing to do with economics, and I want to tie this idea to the way we think about justice. Justice, by the way, is the Whole Souul Living Theme for the month of January, and here’s how all these issues start to be tied together.
Last week at the Christmas Eve Service we collected just over six thousand dollars for MetroCaring. That’s pretty damn generous. The week before that, you voted by a wide margin to renew our commitment to the Interfaith Hospitality Network, and I believe you will embrace that commitment, you will step up, sign up, and follow through with it. Over the years, you have worked for affordable housing, raised money for worthy causes, raised your voices for marriage equality, protested the war in Iraq, helped to desegregate Denver Public schools, and many other worthy efforts.
But I want to suggest to you that justice is about more than serving those in need, and I want to make three points about that. First, “they” are not “them.” There is no “they.” They are us. We might have a bed to sleep in tonight, but no one knows what tomorrow will bring, and the truth is that there is not one of us has been completely unscathed and
unscarred from the economic system that we live in.
Thirty years ago there were hardly any outwardly gay or lesbian people in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Today we are at the very cutting edge of creating justice around sexual orientation. This happened because the people, and the stories of people who were being excluded were held up and made real. Room was made, very intentionally, and a religious recognition again, that there is no us and them. They are us and we are they and all of us are in this together and our community is so amazingly and fantastically enriched because of it.
I want us to do the same for those who feel excluded because of their financial situation. I assure you it is more people than you think. I want the stories of these people held up and made real. Those of you who are here, I want you to come out of the closet and challenge us to make room for all of who you are.
Second, money and economic security are important, but they are not what sustain the soul. For that you need love, community, and a purpose that is larger than you are. If you want the kind of security you can really bank on, focus your life-energy there, and watch what happens.
Third, remember that culture prevails, and you are in it even when you can’t see it clearly. What we expect, what we hold up, even if it’s unconscious, determines our reality. I think it’s fairly easy to see that the culture of materialism that dominates the larger world these days is contrary to even the possibility of achieving a more just and equitable world. These things are intimately related. We cannot, and we will not make real progress, that is, we will not create or move towards meaningful justice in its largest sense as long as the culture of cash is in charge, and I invite you to think and feel deeply on this connection between justice and materialism.
Our goal as people of faith and reason is to be more conscious, more intentional, more whole, so that we might heal from our wounds, ground ourselves in something truly sustaining, and from this place of wholeness and health, help to create a different kind of culture that actually models justice, rather than just struggles to put band-aids on it. I want to invite us to be culturally subversive. Practice simplicity. Be open and honest about money. Cut your spending. Cultivate friendships and spend time on your soul. Avoid shopping as much as possible, even online. Spend that time writing a letter instead. Or cook someone a simple and hearty meal. Call up someone from the church and say you’d like to get to know them better. Grow a few vegetables and eat them. Grow them in your windowsill if you have to. Call your local representative about an issue you care about. Give
time or otherwise invest in your faith community or some other organization doing good in the world. You’ll be surprised at the satisfaction you can get from very, very simple activities like this.
I’m not saying we should stop the important work we do with the homeless or any of our other outreach efforts. I’m saying lets do those efforts in a spirit of solidarity rather than
from a distance.
And, I am suggesting to you that you can help create a better life for yourself, and a broader justice by simply unplugging from the machine, by making a conscious choice to feed, fund, and participate in the materialism and consumerism that drives the current world as little as possible, and by actively working to change our own culture around money. In this month where we will focus on justice, I will conclude with a passage from Martin Luther King, speaking here in 1967, words that still resonate with truth:
"I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to
the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” These are words that must be said."
I believe it is we, who arguably represent the backbone of the nation who must ask these questions now.