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“All Things in Common”: Religious, Humanist, and UU Calls to Action on Economic Justice


2000px-Flaming_Chalice.svg

I delivered this sermon on November 16, 2014, at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

This is a series of challenging statements about economic justice. That’s a huge subject. I can’t cover everything. I’ll leave stuff out. It’s like talking about sports. Everyone has something to point out, to contribute to the discussion. If I leave something out, it’s not because I don’t think it’s important. Please have coffee or a beer with me and tell me what you know and think.

Let me begin by speaking in a voice that is not my own, to tell the story of the Diggers, a group of religious dissidents in 17th Century England. Their story is told in a 1975 song by Leon Rosselson, “The World Turned Upside Down.”

In sixteen forty-nine to Saint George’s Hill
A ragged band they called the Diggers came to show the people’s will
They defied the landlords, they defied the law
They were the dispossessed, reclaiming what was theirs

“We come in peace,” they said, “to dig and sow
We come to work the land in common and to make the waste ground grow
This earth divided we will make whole
So it can be a common treasury for all
 
The sin of property we do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell the earth for private gain
By theft and murder they steal the land
Now everywhere the walls rise up at their command

They make the laws to chain us well
The clergy dazzle us with heaven or they damn us into hell
We will not worship the god they serve
They god of greed who feeds the rich while poor folk starve

We work, we eat together, we need no swords
We will not bow to the masters or pay rent to the lords
Still we are free men though we are poor
You Diggers all, stand up for glory, stand up now”
 
From the men of property the order came
They sent the hired men and troopers to wipe out the Diggers’ claim
Tear down their cottages, destroy their corn
They were dispersed, but still the vision carries on

You poor, take courage, you rich, take care
This earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share
All things in common, all people one
We come in peace, the order came to cut them down

The Diggers were establishing a commons: a shared space reflecting our shared membership in the Source of All Things. The proposition I want to offer today is that economic justice is more than just charity, philanthropy, giving. Economic justice is sharing, it’s institutional, and it requires building a society where sharing is hard-wired into the institutions that constitute everyday life.

My experiences growing up poor, working with domestic violence victims here in La Crosse, and fellow-traveling with radical egalitarian groups for many years leaves me with no doubt as to the imperative of such justice. While 15 percent of the U.S. population lives below the poverty line (23 thousand dollars for a family of four), tens of millions more hover close to it, and a majority of Americans are on the brink of it—an injury or sickness, a lost job, an unexpected disaster. Victims of domestic violence often stay in, or return to, abusive relationships because they lack the material means to re-make their own lives. Desperate people take out payday loans at 300 percent interest or more. Poverty, or even near-poverty, is social exclusion. Being poor means you don’t have the material means to realize the rights and social goods promised to you. Being poor magnifies the impacts of sexism, racism, heterosexism, and all other prejudices. To be poor is to be the victim of perfectly legal material discrimination.

Throughout history, thoughtful religious and secular prophets have argued passionately for economic justice—not just to give alms, but to restructure our social arrangements.

Most indigenous spiritual traditions take sharing for granted, and there is much insight to be found in those traditions and their stories that point to the conclusion that, since we belong to the earth, we cannot individually own pieces of the earth.

In the Spring of 2012, I worked in Kenya with the Center for International Human Rights Law and Advocacy at the University of Wyoming, to advance a property rights claim for a group of Samburu, indigenous cattle ranchers who’d been violently evicted from land they’d occupied in order to make room for Western-populated safaris. The experience brought me face to face with people who would commit cultural genocide for money, and introduced me to people whose ancient ties to the land gave them a quiet dignity in struggle and hardship. They possessed a confidence that, regardless of the legal outcome, they knew the truth—not that the land belonged to them but, in their own words, We Belong to the Land. When we think the land belongs to us, we can expel people. When we know that we belong to the land, we can co-exist with others on it, so long as they respect our rights and needs.

Our Judeo-Christian scriptures call for, at a minimum, care for the poor. But as an ultimate ideal, they call for much more.

In Deuteronomy 26:12: When you have finished paying the complete tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and the widow, that they may eat in your towns, and be satisfied.

In Leviticus 19:19:  Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, neither shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger.

In Luke 3:11: And [John the Baptist] would answer and say to them, “Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise.”

And notice the ultimate ideal state of affairs: Acts 4:32: And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.

Islam is ahead of Judeo-Christianity on the question of institutionalized economic justice. Scholars Nancy Davis and Robert Robinson point out that:

In contrast to the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity, the Qur’an is very specific about the obligation of every Muslim to give to the poor, orphaned, and widowed, “so that wealth may not merely make a circuit among the wealthy” (Q. 59:7). The third of five pillars of the faith, zakat (purification), requires Muslims to give at least 2.5 percent of their net assets (not just their income) annually to the needy. . . . The Hadith (2:24:537), the sacred text that records the sayings of the Prophet, reports Muhammad as saying, “Allah has made it obligatory for them to pay zakat from their property; it is to be taken from the wealthy among them and given to the poor.”

Our spiritual leanings toward economic justice have been colonized by powerful classes and many of these scriptures and traditions have been buried by omission or distorted reinterpretation, and secular critics of religion have accused religion of justifying material hierarchies: Their clergy dazzle us to heaven and damn us into hell, whether through an exaggerated glorification of poorness, or a “prosperity gospel” that equates personal wealth with righteousness. But religious dissidents like the Diggers have fought, often in vain, against the colonization of spiritual truth by the powerful.

There are many good insights in these secular criticisms, most of which developed out of the Enlightenment. We learned about ideological criticism: that the ruling ideas tend to be the ideas of the ruling classes. We learned that technology had the potential to meet human needs and overcome scarcity. We learned that democracy, as a method, was possible.

It is true that many secular experiments in human engineering went horribly wrong. But in the end, these projects had little to do with economic justice. They were not about sharing. Like the churches, secular social engineering traded power for our connections to each other and to the earth. Power and control could prove no substitute for the commons.

Which brings us to the promise of Unitarian Universalism. I believe economic justice is indeed hardwired into our principles, although we sometimes act more like charitable givers than radical sharers. But that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize the true meaning of economic justice. The President of our organization, Rev. Peter Morales, has written:

We tend to treat changes in the economy as if they were like the weather—natural phenomena governed by forces beyond our control. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have chosen to live in a society with high unemployment and with income distribution that is becoming medieval. A tiny percentage of Americans owns most of the wealth. Meanwhile millions of willing and able people are without work. This did not just happen. We created this situation.

In the 19th Century, Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes argued that individual salvation was impossible without social salvation. (Think about that.) He wrote:

Poverty, in this age as in every age, in our country as in every country, is primarily due to the fact of social injustice . . . that insufficient wages force thousands of families to crowd into unhealthy tenements, to eat insufficient food, and to wear insufficient clothing . . . that taxes are inequitable, throwing the chief burden upon the poor instead of upon the rich; that natural resources, which are the basis of all wealth, are in the hands of a few instead of under the control of society at large, and are thus exploited for the benefit of the few and not for the sake of the common welfare; that the distribution of wealth is grossly unfair and disproportionate – in the final analysis, that society is organized upon a basis of injustice and not of justice, and is permeated by the spirit of selfishness and not of love.

In addition to an array of resources on economic justice in society, there is a great resource for Unitarian-Universalists and others concerned with classISM–that is, the way in which we treat others differently based on their economic standing. We tend to be blind to this, just as we are often blind to unconscious racism, sexism, or heterosexsm. Among the resources are those concerning the difficult conversation about the class identity of the majority of UUs, and how this might inform some of the decisions we make about the kinds of services we have, the disproportionate number of a particular type of people in our pews, and our tendency to sometimes treat poorness as a state of mind rather than the result of structural injustice. It’s called “UU Class Conversations” and it’s available at uuclassconversations.org.

Invoking six of our seven UU principles, I would invite us to consider that:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person isn’t possible in a society where one’s material resources determine their access to social goods.

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations isn’t possible in a society where the poor have less access to justice than the rich, where material equity is absent, and where compassion is eclipsed by profit.

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning isn’t possible in a society where people are too tired, demoralized, and alienated to live a contemplative and thoughtful life.

The use of the democratic process in society at large isn’t possible in a society where policies are dictated by a small, wealthy minority.

World community with peace, liberty and justice for all isn’t possible in a world where conflict is profitable and cooperation is seen as weak and unprofitable.

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence isn’t possible in a world where humans are alienated from one another, from their work, and from the non-human environment.

But the seeds of economic justice are ever-present, and many current movements, projects, and policy experiments have the potential to realize that justice in exciting ways.

Worker-owned cooperatives are proving to be viable, sustainable business models that often out-perform traditional businesses and democratize the workplace.

The movement for public banks, following the very successful model of the Bank of North Dakota, aspires to democratize finance and banking, and provide low-interest and no-interest financing to communities, small businesses, farmers, students and others.

Local and municipal governments from Jackson, Mississippi to Richmond, California are taming big corporations in ways the federal government is powerless to do. They do this with everything from living wage ordinances to local currencies, creating and keeping wealth in local communities.

Jubilee and anti-debt groups are crowd-funding student and medical debt payoffs, erasing debt for thousands of people.

Indigenous groups are leading struggles to defend the planet against myopic development practices.

The fledgling movement for guaranteed minimum income recognizes that technology and the socialization of production have transformed the way wealth is created and distributed, even though the old profit-and-loss, wage-worker model persists.

Neighborhoods in Detroit are defiantly creating their own economies, trading systems, and definitions of work.

The urban agriculture movement, along with small farms and food sovereignty groups, aspire to overcome hunger and malnutrition and emancipate food from the control of corporate agriculture.

Groups like our very own AMOS work to instill an ethic of sharing into our everyday lives in this community.

For me, our Unitarian-Universalist chalice is more than a symbol of enlightenment and freedom of conscience. It’s a symbol of justice, interconnectedness, and hope for a better world. The material basis of that world is an economy based on sharing rather than hoarding. Huge swaths of our spiritual and secular ideas light such a path. It is a walk of love, struggle, and interconnectedness.

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About Matt J. Stannard

Policy Director for Commonomics USA, longtime writer, speaker, and legal & policy consultant on economic justice and public deliberation.