Setting a Course

Steward is one of those fascinating words that acquired a multitude of meanings over the centuries. Today, steward generally means one who carefully and responsibly manages something entrusted to their care. Appearing first in early Middle English, the stīweard cared for the pigpens, the ward of the sty. In time, people applied the term to those employed in large households or estates to manage domestic concerns, such as the supervision of servants, the collection of rents, and the keeping of accounts.

As civilization and technology expanded, steward took on the new role of the naval officer in charge of the officer’s quarters and mess onboard the ship. The word later became applied to all employees on ships, trains, buses, or airplanes responsible for the comfort of passengers, taking orders for, or distributing food. In early 20th century America, the shop steward became the union representative responsible for dealing with management. High quality restaurants and resorts employ wine stewards – quite a long way from tending the pig’s sty.

Today, stewardship expands even further. The Earth Charter resulted from worldwide, cross cultural dialogue on common goals and shared values. The project began as a United Nations effort, but was carried forward and completed by a global civil society initiative. Launched in 2000 by the Earth Charter Commission, an independent international entity, the work is a declaration of fundamental ethical principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century. The Charter asserts that “common destiny beckons us to seek a new beginning…This requires a change of mind and heart…a new sense of global interdependence and universal responsibility.” In a sense, the Earth Charter stakes the claim that every person is a steward of every community and of our entire planet.

Every other year, the delegates at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association select a Study Action Issue for a four-year process of examination. The issue selected in 2008 and currently under review among our congregations – Ethical Eating – may seem from its title to concern only issues of meat consumption and vegetarian or vegan diets. We are certainly not the first religious organization to discuss the production, distribution, and use of food. But, the Ethical Eating Study Action Issue goes far beyond this issue, to include the broad aspects of planetary stewardship.

For instance, some people enjoy many food choices while others remain hungry. The food industry produces wealth, but small farmers and farm workers are often poor. Food production and transportation contribute to many environmental problems. The scope of the discussion encompasses a wide range of stewardship issues, many of which bear relevance as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day this coming Thursday. Let’s briefly review some of those issues.

Climate change
Scientific research increasingly links our food production and distribution systems to climate change and the energy crisis, uncovering deep-seated problems with our agricultural infrastructure. Leaders from many faith traditions now call for politicians, business leaders, the agriculture industry, and religious institutions to assume more responsibility for our planet’s health. Ordinary people – not just environmentalists or those working for social justice and rights issues, but people who are busy balancing issues of everyday living – are recognizing that the true cost of food far exceeds what we pay at the cash register. These costs include global warming, pollution, the destruction of ecosystems, and the degradation of fresh water supplies and arable land.

We waste over 3,000 pounds of food per second in the United States. According to the Department of Agriculture, each year 27% of food produced for human consumption in America is lost at the retail, consumer, and food service levels. That’s nearly 1.5 tons of food for every man, woman, and child in the United States who face hunger. Globally, 4.3 pounds of food are produced daily for every woman, man, and child on earth – enough to make all of us fat. Yet every year, six million children across the globe die as a result of hunger and malnutrition – that’s one child dying every five seconds. Hunger and malnutrition are responsible for more deaths in the world than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.

In a system of Free Trade, agricultural goods and services flow among countries unaffected by government-imposed restrictions like tariffs, taxes, and quotas that generally increase the costs of goods and services to both consumers and producers. Proponents assert that free trade makes society more prosperous and qualitatively improved by increased commerce. Free trade has been said to decrease war, reduce poverty, enrich culture, enhance security, and increase economic efficiency. Free trade is also understood as a sovereign right of free nations.

In a system of Fair Trade, agricultural goods and services flow among countries based not only on classic economic considerations, but also social, environmental, labor, and sustainability requirements. Fair Trade relies on consumer readiness to pay slightly more for products that empower, rather than exploit, vulnerable populations. Most Fair Trade standards also mandate progress requirements that ensure continuous improvement in the conditions of workers, communities, and the environment.

Fair Trade advocates suggest that we should be at least as concerned with sustainability, environmental considerations, and fairness as we are with efficiency measured in dollars and cents. Also, we must recognize that the conditions in which Free Trade might lead to the best outcomes are not present in much of the Global South with whom the North trades. These include classic economic assumptions such as perfect market information, access to credits and markets, and the ability to change equipment and techniques in response to changing market conditions.

Historically, large farms in the United States consistently depended on poorly paid labor, often to the point of exploitation. Much of our agricultural system was built on the backs of indentured and enslaved agricultural workers, and in the 21st century farm workers remain among the lowest paid laborers in our economy. In recent centuries, immigrants from Europe have been able to leave America’s fields within a single generation; immigrants from Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands have fewer options, however, and disproportionately toil under inhuman conditions for less than living wages for generations.

In addition to its low wages, agricultural labor today features some of the economy’s most dangerous jobs. From physical demands to operating unfamiliar and ill-maintained equipment to exposure to animal bacteria and massive doses of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, agricultural work ranks as the second most dangerous occupation according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And, workers who do not speak or read English are often at greater risk for injury due to insufficient notification of occupational hazards.

Neo-colonialism exists when a nation or state appears sovereign and independent, but has its economy, politics, and/or culture largely directed from outside, often by a former colonial or imperial power. Modern trade, immigration, and foreign aid policies in Europe and the U.S. continue to exacerbate the historic ravages of colonialism for indigenous and subjugated peoples worldwide.

Poor regions of the world shift from producing crops that support their self-sufficiency to “cash crops” valued by the dominant world economy, like cotton, tobacco, sugar, tea, rice, coffee, cocoa, bananas, pineapples, corn, soy beans, and livestock. Combined with free market economics, this perpetuates dependent, inequitable relationships and a system of poverty, malnutrition, and exploited labor. Because indigenous and poor populations lack access to traditional hunting, gathering, and farming lands, they must resort to foreign diets, whose poor quality and highly processed nature lead to nutrition related diseases.

Environmental justice
Just as power in society has been misused to oppress various social groups in the U.S. (people of color, women, GLBTQ people, people with disabilities, and so on), power has also been misused to create vast areas of environmental devastation throughout the world and to thwart attempts at environmental reform and preservation. Today there is growing realization that negative environmental impacts disproportionately burden socially marginalized groups in developing countries abroad.

Proponents of environmental justice argue that one of the significant reforms needed is a shift in the dominant worldview that commodifies land and objectifies living things. Proponents of environmental justice encourage a shift from viewing the environment as a resource to exploit to a web of interconnected living things, and the source of life itself. In addition, proponents advocate for prioritizing the needs of low income people, people of color communities, and other oppressed groups, who disproportionately lack access to nutritious food, clean air and water, parks, recreation, health care, education, transportation, and safe jobs. Self-determination, participation in decision-making, and gaining control over land and resources are also key components, since justice making activities not accountable to oppressed communities tend to perpetuate the very oppression they try to fight.

Animal rights
The simple act of eating expresses one of our most basic and profound relationships with Earth and life. For some of us, our main connection to non-human animals is through our forks and knives. But, the freezer pack wrapped in cellophane bears little resemblance to the creature that sees and breathes and sighs. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”

Zoologists, biologists, and cognitive ethologists all now agree that animals are emotional beings, and that like us, they evolved capacities for satisfaction and frustration, pleasure, and suffering as biological necessities. Though animals are often considered part of “the environment,” the complexity of their experience suggests that they are much more than animated gardenias or slabs of granite. Animals are not so much a part of environment as they are subjects moving through the environment, with experiences all their own. As anyone who has gotten to know a dog, cat, bird, pig, or cow can tell you, animals are experiencing, sentient creatures with wants, needs, and frustrations. At the heart of the impulse we call religious is the desire to lessen suffering and to extend justice and compassion.

Climate control, hunger, trade, labor, neo-colonialism, environmental justice, animal rights – this is a massive agenda. Even the combined energy, courage, and faith of the more than 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States cannot hope to address all of these issues in significant ways. Some religions comprise mighty armadas in the ocean of social, political, and economic issues. Relatively speaking, one might imagine us a single light cruiser patrolling the shores against the currents of circumstance and the waves of human need.

But, we should not let our size, whether we consider our denomination or just this congregation, limit our dreaming and striving for a better world. O. Eugene Pickett, one-time President of the Unitarian Universalist Association once said, “We pray that we may live not by our fears but by our hopes, not by our words but by our deeds.”

Ours is an empowering faith. We may not make huge inroads in every field of social justice. Sometimes, we are just the jounaling observer of the beauty around us, or the barking dog bellowing for justice. Whatever role we play, we can ever steer our steward-ship in the direction of action and service to humankind and to our planet. Every one of us can live by our hopes and deeds, setting a course toward a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

The Earth Charter begins with the following Preamble.

We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.

In our individual lives, as a congregation, and as Unitarian Universalists, may we find ways to steer the course of our stewardship to such lofty purpose.

NOTE: Much of the material cited in this sermon comes from the Ethical Eating Study Action Issue Study Guide, a wonderful resource of information and links for further research.