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Materializing Empathy: A Materialist Reading of the Seventh UU Principle: Respect for the Interdependent Web of Life

A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse, Wisconsin, September 27, 2015

My family is partially Mormon, and for a little while in my life, I too was partially Mormon. In the Book of Mormon, which literalist Mormons take to be a collection of writings of ancient prophets who lived on the American continent from approximately 2200 BC to AD 421, there is an account of a speech given by a King Benjamin, outlining the tenants of righteous living and prophesying the life of Jesus. At one point, King Benjamin reminds his tribal subjects to take care of the poor. As a rejoinder to those who might make moral judgments about the poor, he says something interesting:

. . . are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?

. . . And if you judge the person who asks you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which does not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongs?

2000px-Flaming_Chalice.svgIn other words, to the question “why should we help others?” King Benjamin’s answer is: Because nothing really belongs to us.

In the 19th century, Latter-Day Saints sought to live a collective, Benjamin-like existence through implementation of a communalist system called the United Order. Many contemporary Latter Day Saints do considerable rhetorical cartwheels to ignore the “beggars” part of King Benjamin’s address, and focus only on the need to help the poor, and then only on that need as a justification for the pursuit of personal wealth in order that they may be generous to others. But I don’t intend to single out Mormons. Most religious people, most people period, believe that limited, individual acts of charity answer the totality of the demands of economic justice. This belief comes from a notion of ownership that is different from the one I’ll offer you today.

Today I will suggest to you that a full understanding of our membership in a materially interdependent web of life makes charity insufficient.

Why? Well, there are all kinds of economic and policy reasons why we need to hardwire our economic sharing. But the religious and ethical reason why I say charity is insufficient is that a system based on charity does not sufficiently recognize our shared begging.

As Unitarian-Universalists, we believe there is a unity that makes us all one. What is that materially? I believe our true unity and universality, our true common identity in the interdependent web of life, consists in the fact that we are all beggars on this planet.

From what do we beg? We beg from the Commons. What is the Commons? My colleague Marc Armstrong and I wrote the following last summer:

The commons is as close to you as the air you breathe, the water in the glass beside you, and the open-source code you may be using on your computer. The exact definition and parameters of the commons change based on cultural values and legal precedents, but the commons is a constant in American society, and around the world. Rather than an abstract concept, the commons has underwritten–subsidized—all forms of wealth and material activity in our nation’s history, and in human history. The collective wealth of the earth is the source of each person’s individual wealth.

The term itself is contestable and somewhat unstable. The simplest definition of the commons may be the truest. Many dictionaries define the commons as “land or resources belonging to or affecting the whole of a community.” On the Commons, a movement strategy center, lists several examples of the commons on its web site, including unmistakably natural things like water, air, and topsoil; institutional collectives such as indigenous societies, the National Institute of Health, and fire departments; human activities such as sports and neighborhood groups; and perspectival things like spiritual beliefs and the night sky. These are all parts of the commons because they generate, or have the potential to generate, value for everyone.

Another definition I like is: Common resources are those for which “there is no single decision-maker.”

So that’s the source from which we beg. The question then becomes how we ought to do our begging. It’s here where, in the course of researching my upcoming book The American Commons, I learned some interesting things about American history. I can’t speak for all generations, but my generation was taught that private ownership and the generation of wealth through capital was the rule in American history, and common ownership and cooperative economics were the exception. In fact, if anything, the opposite is true.

I want to share some quotes I ended up using in the book:

Since 1735 there has been a continuous and unbroken existence of communes in the United States. There is no equivalent in any of the other countries in the modern world. -Iaácov Oved, Two Hundred Years of American Communes, 1993

The equality among the Indians, and the just rewards they always confer on merit, are . . . the only motives that warm their hearts with a strong and permanent love to the country. Governed by the plain and honest law of nature, their whole constitution breathes nothing but liberty. -James Adair, The History of the American Indians, 1775

Some of the most prominent communal activities of the Founders occurred before the Revolution. Benjamin Franklin organized the first public library, the Library Company of Philadelphia, in 1731, when fifty people paid forty shillings apiece to fund the collection. In 1751, Franklin wrote in the Pennsylvania Gazette in favor of a public hospital that would provide free care to the impoverished. Answering the objection that charity is best achieved through individual action, he replied that “the Good particular Men may do separately, in relieving the Sick, is small, compared with what they may do collectively, or by a joint Endeavour and Interest.”

Here’s Thomas Paine: “Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally.”

Thomas Jefferson: “The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed.”

From the earliest days of the slave trade in America, insurgencies and escapes were an essential piece of the slavery enterprise, and cooperative communities emerged from necessity. There were over 250 slave insurgencies in early America, and escaped slaves (both black and white) set up “communal settlements” in forests and swamps. Mutual aid associations also figured prominently in the promotion of egalitarian practices for African-Americans. The first such society in Philadelphia, the Free African Society, formed in 1787, the year of the formation of the U.S. Constitution.

A great summary of this history was written by Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers:

When it came to European colonists, ‘cooperation permeated the entire way of life.’ This was true in wave after wave of settlers, whether from Britain, France or Spain. They built houses for each other, plowed fields and shared food; they cleared land and built communities together. There were community gatherings to husk corn, quilt and sew, pare apples and launch ships.

The Spanish colonies, now the Southwest of the United States, were given community land grants by the king for groups of ten or more people. Large sections of common land (ejidos) were put aside for the entire community to share for farming, hunting, water and wood gathering. Of 295 land grants, 154 were community land grants. The common ejido could not be sold. Restoration of ejido lands was one of the central goals of the Zapatistas in the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

In New England, the battle between corporate power and individual rights existed from the very beginning. The first colony of Pilgrims threw off their investors who treated them as indentured servants (a forerunner to modern wage slavery) and instituted self-government. Their community started as a commune and evolved into a cooperative. People worked communally, the product of their work was stored in a community warehouse and needs were taken from a common store. The first major independent industry in Plymouth was a fishing cooperative.

I would also refer everyone to an amazing book: John Curl, For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America, 2012

So why not privatization? The argument seems to make sense: If you personally own something, you take better care of it. Right? Not always. In the world of interpersonal, close ownership, sure. In the world of financial and contractual ownership, actually not very often at all.

My personal journey through the research, interviews, and case studies concerning material arrangements has led me to discover that private ownership has not been the most effective and efficient way of managing resources. For example, I interviewed David Brodwin, cofounder and board member of American Sustainable Business Council, who told me about what happened with the privatization of fish catch shares. The shares were bought up by corporate entities far away from the seas. They were entrusted to big-boat, corporate fishing operations. This accelerated the destruction of the fish stocks, and the deterioration of fishing as a way of life.

Proponents of privatization like to argue that people will take better care of the things they own. That may be true for small-scale, tangible things, but sometimes what is “owned” is a piece of paper indicating that something far away has some kind of monetary value. “People will take care of assets in ways that are meaningful to them,” Brodwin told me. That means those for whom an asset is meaningful as a source of livelihood, relationships, and lifestyle will take care of those assets the way that people take care of things they personally identify with and care about. But if the asset is physically distant from them, or emotionally distant from them because it’s only about monetary value, there is no incentive to do anything but wait for the asset to pump itself full of value and then sell it to the highest bidder–someone who is likely even more removed from the authenticity of the resource, and only identifies it as a financial asset.

This all comes to a head as we now know that in order to reverse course on our climate, and to avoid other environmental disasters in the future, we need to drastically reduce our use of certain resources. At the corporate and industrial level, this may well require the implementation of “earthrights,” the granting of legal status to parts of the earth itself. And at the individual level, the community level, intentional communities are leading the way in demonstrating that sustainability is possible: The residents of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Missouri, for example, have reduced their ecological impact on key metrics by 90%–and they live rich, gregarious, abundant lives there.

In my own research, I found the greatest hope for models of cooperation and sustainability in Elinor Ostrom’s conclusion that common ownership and management could exist independent of either the private corporation or the monolithic state. Ostrom won her Nobel Prize because she demonstrated that cooperative models work. This is important, because the most common argument against cooperative economics is that it does not work.

In describing our Seventh Principle, I find the words of Rev. Forrest Gilmore inspiring–particularly his insistance that it’s not just about “respecting the environment.” We are part of the environment. He says:

Our seventh Principle may be our Unitarian Universalist way of coming to fully embrace something greater than ourselves. The interdependent web—expressed as the spirit of life, the ground of all being, the oneness of all existence, the community-forming power, the process of life, the creative force, even God—can help us develop that social understanding of ourselves that we and our culture so desperately need. It is a source of meaning to which we can dedicate our lives.

But I would go further—we are the web, all our common materiality is the web, we do not own any part of it individually, and an awareness of our interdependence, our shared vulnerability, is the key to developing both personal and political ethics that hardwire empathy—mutual understanding and mutual submission—into our public institutions and material arrangements.

I’m not here to talk about policies, but there are many ways to do this, including public banks, basic income dividends, and worker-owned cooperatives. When implemented, those ideas have improved lives and allowed communities to control their own destinies better than privatization schemes have. I firmly believe this is because collective management of resources is a more authentic reflection of our relationship to the Commons, and to one another, than privatization.

For are we not all beggars? Borrowers? Lessees? Tenants? It’s time to stop lumbering around like we own the place.


Matt Stannard is Policy Director at Commonomics USA and a member of the Board of the Public Banking Institute.

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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.