Friday, November 23, 2018

Why We Organize

I spent this past week in Carlinville Illinois, a bit northeast of St. Louis at a Gamaliel National Leadership Training. Gamaliel is a Congregational Based Community Organizer. It is the National Organization we are involved with locally through Quad Cities Interfaith. Gamaliel’s mission is
“is to empower ordinary people to effectively participate in the political, environmental, social and economic decisions affecting their lives. Gamaliel’s diverse members apply their faith and values to the pursuit of equal opportunity for all, shared abundance, and stronger, more prosperous communities.”
For those who don’t know the word Gamaliel comes from the Bible in several places. When the Israelites first escaped from the bondage of Egypt they were in the wilderness.According to the Hebrew Scriptures there were over 600,000 people travelling in the desert. And of course as with any group we tend to think of them as monolithic, but according to the scriptures there were twelve tribes of Hebrews. Quoting from the book of Numbers 
“The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…Take a census of the whole congregation of Israelites, in their clans, by ancestral houses, according to the number of names. An individual from each tribe shall assist you.”
whether the number was 600,000 or 6,000, the leaders knew that on a practical basis if they were to reach the promised land, they would have to be organized. Trust me as we ready to gather for Thanksgiving, I know the struggle of just trying to organize dinner for 8 people in our family, let alone March multitudes across the wilderness.  And from the tribe of Manasseh, Gamaliel was the chosen on to help organize.
The second notation of a Gamaliel was in the Christian Scriptures in the book of Acts.  He was a Pharisee in the Council and was considered “a teacher of the law, respected by all the people” Also according to the Book of Acts he was the teacher of Paul of Tarsas, who Saul Alinsky called the greatest organizer ever. After the death of Jesus the Apostles were arrested for preaching in the name of Jesus after organizing the people not in power including the sick and the mentally ill. After breaking out of prison, the apostles went to the temple, the seat of power to advocate for the people. It says the leaders were enraged and wanted to kill the apostles. After being re-arrested, Gamaliel in the face of the angry mob wanting to kill the apostles gave a rationale defense of the Apostles. He used his power and his influence to save the Apostle’s lives. I ask you to think how you can use your power and influence to affect change.
The teacher Gamaliel as mentioned in the Christian Scriptures is thought to be the grandson of the famous Jewish Rabbi Hillel, who said,
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me, But if I care for myself only, what am I? and if not now, when.”  
And this Jewish teaching to me, this is the point of doing interfaith work for me. Much of the training was to better understand what motivates us to do what we do. I think that is important work we each need to do. We need to stand up for ourselves when we are persecuted. We cannot allow the systemic powers to crush our spirit. But alone, we are limited, both spiritually, religiously, and in our justice work. The training focused on how to organize power to bring the change we want to see in the world.
One of the first teachings during the training was and analysis of the Melian Debate.
This is a famous passage from the “History of the Peloponnesian War by the Athenian historian Thucydides.

As you can see Melian is a small island. It had been inhabited by previous residents of Sparta but had remained neutral in the war between sparta and Athens. Athens and its allies are in orange here, Sparta in Green, and little Melos in purple. Melos was important as a shipping port in the war. During a ceasefire in the war. Athens arrived at Melos with a large fleet with soldiers demanding the surrender of Melos.  The dialogue is an imagination about what happened during the discussion between Athenian leaders and the leaders of Melos.
Athens appeals to pragmatism of the situation explaining that they were prefer not to destroy everyone, and it would be in everyone’s best interest if Melos surrounded. Athens would profit, Melians would survive.
The Melians argued for the higher ideal of freedom. Athens expressed they would look weak to others if they allowed Melos to be free and that would encourage others to be free.
Melos pointed out that by conquering them, it would push other neutral countries into the arms of the Spartans.
The Melians argued that they were standing up for what is right, trusting the Gods and ensuring the Athenians that the Spartans would come to their aid.
The Athenians said “so far as the favor of the gods is concerned, we think we have as much right to that as you have”
It goes back and forth for a while. In the end, the Melians would not surrender, The Athenians the much stronger power conquered them and after a couple of rebellions, the Athenians killed every Man and sold the women and child into slavery.
As a class we were asked to act this out. We each had a chance to argue from each side. People were sent out of the room. At one point I was a Melian, I left the room and tried to organize all the people outside the room to stage a rebellion against the Athenians as Spartans. Cause Im just a rebellious kind of guy.  And here is the interesting thing that happened. People refused to disobey the teachers orders to stay outside. They believed they were powerless to defy authority. And that belief was manifested in their lack of action. If we accept authority unconditionally without questioning it, we are doomed.
That is why our third principles calls us to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. But finding meaning is meaningless if we do not act on it. In our analysis of the Melian Dialogue it was clear The Athenians had an understanding of the situation, were calculating, acting strategically and with power. The Melians on the other hand lived in world of false hope. They were ideological, irrational, self righteous, believing the Gods would help them, but most of all they were powerless. 
In the end we know Sparta eventually won the war, and the returning Melians became slaves of Sparta. Who is to say whether Melians sacrificing themselves drew more forces and attention from Athens which made them more vulnerable to Sparta. Upon their impending loss, Athens certainly feared repercussions from Spartans based on the way they treated the Melians.  But here is the deep truth I  took away from the exchange, you cannot be neutral in a war.  You have to pick sides. Not picking sides is picking a side. As Archbishop of South Africa Desmond Tutu said
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” 
I can relate to the Melians. Growing up in the Bronx, in the schoolyard, I was always shorter, less athletic, less physically powerful then just about everybody. And at least when I grew up I lived in a lord of the flies type environment, where there was not much adult supervision.
I realized early on, there is no honor is constantly losing even if I was in the right. But neither could I just check out.  We think we can check out, as if we are not impacted by the world. But let me tell you if we leave the fate of the world to others no one is safe and people will continue to be harmed and eventually that harm reaches us.
Just as I had to learn to build my power in the schoolyard by learning new skills, I learned as well to partner with others in the schoolyard so we could protect each other. It is why in our experiment I left to try to recruit the Spartans. And it is the same in our lives, in the community and in the world. We need others to help us make it in this world. No one makes it alone. But it is not just about protection.  We have to act to bring about our vision in the world. That is the vision I want you to have. Whether it is spiritual growth, pastoral care, or social justice, it doesn’t magically happen, we have to plan for it and we have to organize around that plan.  
One way we act in the world is to share our monthly collection with a social justice organization. This month we are sharing our collection is for QCI Restorative Justice Task Force working on breaking the school to prison pipeline.  If you would like to volunteer on this project the next meeting will be Monday Night at 6pm at St. Peters Episcopel Church in Bettendorf. Please be as generous as you can. After you have had a chance to donate, we invite you to come down to light a candle to mark a joy or sorrow in your personal life.

Part II
The Athenians had a vision, the Melians were only reacting to the Athenians. The Melians did not plan ahead and they paid the price.  That is what the Board and I do as we gather each month. We plan for our Congregation’s future. We don’t just accept the status quo but explore what we will need to do keep Unitarian Universalism relevant and strong for the long term in the Quad Cities. This is something Gamaliel has done as well. To see what the status quo is, or as they put it the dominant narrative in society and they work to change that in the world.
There are forces that would like us to believe a narrative that they want us to fit into because it benefits them but our religious values and our lived experiences tell us these narratives are false. 
The false narrative that says that opportunity is available to everyone, if they are willing to work hard enough, when we know people living in poverty have little chance escaping it on their own. The false narrative that says our value as human beings is economic, and that we are judged only by how much wealth we have or what type of car we drive,
the false narrative that says corporations are people and we only benefit when they benefit,
the false narrative that says straight white cisgender Christian culture is the norm, when we know there is beauty in diversity,
the false narrative that says the government should be limited when we know it can be an organizing power for good. 
Gamaliel asks us to believe and work towards a transformative narrative, and as I read a part of it, you will understand why I feel connected to it, because it so mirrors our principles.
The following are excerpts from Gamaliel’s transformative narrative.
“Every human being is created with inherent worth and dignity, Humanity and creation are inextricably linked, Human Beings have the sacred responsibility of caring for creation, ensuring its resilience, and nurturing and renewing it for future generations. 
As community we order our lives together through the formation of democratic government that acts for the well being of all its residents. \
We seek to establish an economy that ensures that that the community and all of its members 
and creation flourish. 
We are called to critique and lament the world as it is and to continually call forth a new 
world marked by justice compassion hope, shared abundance, and radical inclusiveness. 
Together we act boldly and defiantly to dismantle racism and poverty, and to establish the 
beloved community” 
To make this narrative real we need to have power. Now we have often heard the phrase knowledge is power. But knowledge by itself is not enough if we do not have the ability to act on that knowledge. For some having power seems fearful. I think that is in part because having power Implies responsibility. It is a hard enough sometimes to be responsible for ourselves, let alone to be responsible for others,
responsible for your family,
responsible for your fellow members of this Congregation,
responsible for this Congregation,
responsible for your fellow quad citians. Responsible for your fellow Americans.
Responsible for all beings in the world.
I know it sounds like a lot. And so often we step back and do nothing.
But just because we cannot do everything, should not mean that we should not do the thing we can do. And if I have found out anything in my life, It is that we are capable of so much more then we realize. And it matters what we do. We have to believe that it matters what we do, or what is the point.
And although it is true the future is unknown, it is not inevitable. So to create and live out this or whatever our transformative narrative or our vision is requires us to commit and organize and be in relationship with others.
It requires us being in relationship with ourselves to know our own power,
it require us to be in relationship with those who have power to be able to affect change,
but as well we need to be in relationship to those who don’t have power and hear what their needs are, and commit to walk with them on their journey, and then we must walk with them, and show them a path to power and then we must let them have power.
As Civil Rights Attorney Brian Stevenson wrote and talked about at our UUA General Assembly,
“We must get “proximate” to suffering and understand the nuanced experiences of those who suffer from and experience inequality. If you are willing to get closer to people who are suffering, you will find the power to change the world.”
UU Theologian James Luther Adams wrote we are the prophethood and priesthood of all believers.
And so I ask you to think about what you are called to do in this world. What is it that drives you, keeps you going, what is it at the core of your being that is the most important thing that needs to be changed in the world. I ask  you to look at where you suffer or have suffered in the world. And through examining our own suffering, we can transform that suffering through action and often that happens to be what needs changed in the world. So I invite you to change your world and to change the world. I want to live in a world where Melians are free and independent.
As Hillel say if not now, when. I can tell you from personal experience, tomorrow is not guaranteed. So let there be a sense of urgency in our work. The work may not be finished in our lifetime, but it will certainly take longer if we do not do our share of the work now. So as we ready for Thanksgiving let us organize our power as we journey through the wilderness to the promised land, the promised land of justice and freedom.
May it be so.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Democracy and Voting

An excerpt from George Washington’s farewell speech:
“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate 
peace and harmony with all.  Religion and morality enjoin this 
conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin
 it  It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no 
distant period, a great nation, to give to (hu)mankind the 
magnanimous and too novel example  of a people always 
guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt 
that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan 
would richly repay any temporary advantages which might 
be lost by a steady adherence to it”  
No distant period is a relative term, but hopefully we can still be guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Now morality is a tricky thing isn’t it. Especially looking at it historically.  
It is important to point out that Washington for all his greatness, was a slave owner. Yet unlike many other leaders of his time, in his will he did free his slaves upon the death of his wife and provide for their education.
       As Lincoln said in his second inaugural address about the Northern and Southern states “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes God’s aid against the other.”  
So how do I claim the moral high ground. I don’t.
I claim my moral ground. And I ask you to claim yours as well.
We often here fundamentalist religions claiming morality and God is on their side.
And because we are open to multiple possibilities we are often not definitive saying this is the only way, or this is the one true way.
But that doesnt mean just because I am open to other perspectives and other ways of thinking,
it doesn’t mean I don’t believe in a better way, or I don’t believe that what I think is moral.
And because each of us have different opinions, elections in our country are moral statements,
about what we as country believe to be moral.
We as a religion recognize difference and the importance of each of us having our input to come to a higher truth and we have imbedded that in our foundational principles,
“The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
And so I ask you as we come upon election day I ask you to consider the moral values of your choices.  For me, there are many moral choices.
Many of my choices are based on our principles, particularly the principle of justice equity and compassion in human relations.
I believe Maintaining health care for pre-existing conditions, Expanding quality physical and mental health care for all through some type of  single payer or universal health care system.
Now I don’t even care whether you think health care is a right or not. How and to whom we offer Health care is a moral choice about how we spend our resources as a country to care for our fellow human beings.  
I believe in the continuation of a sustainable Social Security system.
This is a moral choice, so that the elderly and disabled will be able to live with dignity and sustenance.
I value the moral choice keeping families together in their many forms.
I believe it is immoral to forcibly separate children from parents unless they are in danger,
I believe it is immoral to put children in cages as a way to coerce their parents.
I think it is immoral to break up families and increase poverty due to non violent marijuana possession.
I think it is particularly immoral when that is done disproportionately on a racial basis.
I believe it is moral to help people lift themselves out of poverty
If we truly want people to reach their potential we should provide education for all people, and we should pay a living wage as a society
so people do not have to worry where their next meal is coming from or if they will have a roof over their head.
What other choice do we have if we truly believe in justice equity and compassion in human relations. Do you know the other day I read the government objects to free college education because then they would have difficulty in getting anyone to volunteer for the armed services. This might also fit with my belief in the goal of world community with peace liberty and justice for all, not just for Americans, but for all. Is the child born in Bangladesh, of less value than a child born in America?
I do believe it is moral in the absence of emergency, just as we do at the Congregation, that we as a country should have a balanced budget that recognizes that those who have the means to, should help those who do not have the means.
And perhaps, cutting back on the military industrial complex spending is a way to reach that goal as well as the goal of a peaceful world community. 
I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of each person and so I think it is moral to respect individuals gender identity and sexual orientation.
I think it is moral to protect women’s health rights.  
I believe we should respect the interdependent web of existence, so I think it is moral to have Sane environmental protections to save the planet for our descendants compared to a deregulation scorched earth policy.  

I ask you to think about what are your hopes for this country? How do your values help you discern that. What are we called to do to bring about as Washington said the fruits of exalted justice and benevolence. Now I don’t know. 200 years from now, someone will look back and this may all seem crazy to them. In the same way our founders could not have even fathomed the internet, so too can we not fathom what the future holds, but that does not excuse us from doing the best we can with the knowledge we have, in our free religious community,
still searching for enlightenment, looking upon each others faces with compassion, acting towards our fellow human beings with empathy, and righting the wrongs of injustice.
That is what my morality calls on me to do.

Part II
I have enjoyed the tv show Madam Secretary over the years because it shows the nuanced challenges of diplomacy and the  difficult decisions government has to make. Here in this scene, is the Secretary of State talking to her daughter after her daughter tells her she is not going to vote

First what I loved most about this scene was the little kids playing on the floor while their parents voted. I remember doing this when my parents went to vote. Voting was not considered an option in my family.
My grandparents who were immigrants to this country considered it a requirement of citizenship, and as well worked as volunteers on election day.
Now I know many young people who vote and are engaged in political life.
And I know many young and old people who are not engaged in the political process. And I get it. I came of age during the Nixon White House and Nixon’s forced resignation and pardon. And I have lived long enough to understand the inefficiency and corruption that arises in government. 

Yet I have also been around long enough and studied long enough to see the power of government used for good. To end slavery, to stop fascism.
To build an interstate highway,
to fund research for life saving medicine,
and for the creation of the internet,  
to provide a system to help those who are struggling, to legalize marriage equality, public education, and much more, and it requires constant vigilance and attention as we see the good being constantly chipped away at. 

As the video stated Democracy is not perfect, or efficient, but it is what we have. And maybe we should not hope for efficiency in Government.   I was moved by what Parker Palmer said in his book The Heart of Democracy”
“Just as a virgin prairie is less efficient than agribusiness land, democracy is less efficient than a dictatorship. We often move too slowly on matters of moral or practical urgency. And yet this loss of efficiency is more than offset by the way human diversity, freely expressed, can strengthen the body politic—offering resilience in the face of threat, adaptability to change, creativity and productivity in everything from commerce to science to culture”
Your participation, your voice  is important.
You may not think your vote counts.  
But I can tell you it does.  
I lived in Florida during the Gore/Bush Presidential election in 2000.
Although there are still today disputes about voter suppression and the actual final count, but the final tally for official purposes was 537 votes. Out of 5.8 million votes the difference was 537 votes.
Imagine if more people had voted how the world would be different today. So don’t tell me your vote doesn’t count. It is a privilege to say your vote doesn’t count.
Elections have real consequences for many people, even if not for you and we are all in this together. And although at times it may seem that Democracy is slowing dieing,
I am reminded of what Rev. William Barber said "We are being asked to be the moral defibrillator for the heart of democracy." 
Democracy needs us to be engaged.
To pump its heart so it will breather longer and stronger, to breathe new life into it.
Even if it sometimes needs us to pound it in the chest and shock it back to life.
If we are not willing to take responsibility for it, we leave ourselves vulnerable and we cannot just assume the patient is going to live and its death will end our freedom. So vote, go to school borad meetings, city council meetings, zoning board meetings, whatever you are passionate about, be engaged.

The other thing that the tv clip reminded me of, the responsibility to vote, because so many people died for the right to vote. Now the tv show was talking about our armed services fighting for our freedom, but I am also reminded of our siblings, who blood was spilled in this country including Unitarian blood in the fight for voting rights.

I was reminded about this from a tweet by Georgia representative John Lewis who marched in Selma for voting rights in 1965. He wrote
“I have been beaten, my skull fractured, and arrested more than forty times so that each and every person has the right to register and vote. Friends of mine gave their lives. Do your part. Get out there and vote”
And I thought about those who died, those known and unknown 

1955  Rev. George Lee,  used his pulpit and his printing press to urge people to vote.
White officials offered Lee protection on the condition he end his voter registration efforts, but Lee refused and was murdered.

 Known 1964, James Earl ChaneyAndrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner, all murdered after coming to Philadelphia Mississippi to register people to vote

 Known February 1965 · Marion, Alabama
Jimmie Lee Jackson was beaten and shot by state troopers as he tried to protect mother from a state trooper attack at a voting rights march. His death led to the Selma-Montgomery march

Known March  1965 · Selma, Alabama
Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, and Viola Liuzzo a Unitarian layperson from Michigan were killed in Alabama after participating in the Selma March for Voting Rights.  Soon after Lyndon Johnson was able to pass the Voting Rights Act, even mentioning Reeb in his address to Congress.  
All of these people and so many many more, call to us from the grave and call us to be engaged in public life.

So let our life have meaning,
Let us rise above our fears,
let us continue to build resilience by acting courageously, yes by acting we build resilience,
let us find our voice,
let us remain humble in that we know there is much we do  not know, and mostly
let us have hope.
Not a pie in the sky hope,
not a well wishing optimism hope, but rather a hope As Victoria Safford says where “you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle but joy” So Please vote and no matter what happens, stay engaged.
Be true to your heart, and your hope and your struggle
Let us continue the struggle together as we build the world we dream about because your lives count and the lives that will come after us count as well, They are counting on us.  May it be so.