Truth and Meaning: Occupy 2.0?

Sept. 17 was the three-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Whatever you thought of the movement’s strategies or success, its wondrous and flawed idealism, ask yourself this question: Has anything Occupiers protested improved in the past three years?
  • The bankers, lawyers and other white collar criminals responsible for our economic collapse have not been charged, let alone convicted of crimes. 
  • Income disparity continues to rise, with the average corporate head earning hundreds, even thousands times more than their average worker. 
  • Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other oppressions continue unabated and largely unregulated. 
  • Our diet has become more genetically modified and our environment more polluted. 
  • Labor unions continue to be assaulted, no living wage is in sight and health insurance remains a target of the “haves.” 
  • Jobs remain scarce, and students continue to graduate from college with decreasing hope and increasing debt. 
  • Corporations are being treated more like people, and people are being treated more like disposable commodities.
  • Our reckless policies regarding campaign financing have created a government owned by the tiny elite they are supposed to be regulating. 
  • Our blind pursuit of war abroad has now expanded onto our city streets as paramilitary police gun down unarmed, innocent civilians. 
  • It has become increasingly easier to buy a gun than to vote in some states.
As the original statement of the Occupy Wall Street movement said, we as one people united must acknowledge that the future of humanity requires that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to us to protect our own rights; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We continue to live in a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.
The embers of the Occupy movement still glow. Perhaps the time has come to reignite the flame. While we wordsmith and squabble over pennies to aid the poor, the wealth of this great nation is being drained by a new monarchy as trickle down economics has become flood upwards economics. A people united cannot be divided. North Carolina is showing us the way with its Moral Monday movement. Perhaps the time has come for every state and for all people to unite and exercise their rights and responsibilities as Americans to reclaim the moral center of our country.

The Path to Truth

We face a world of confusing uncertainty and contradictions. Some prosper while millions suffer. Mean-spirited sound bites drown out civil discourse. We yearn for heroes and heroines only to see them eviscerated by our cult of celebrity and our celebration of cynicism. The jesters have taken over the castle while the feudal lords plunder the people and pillage the land.

We look to our churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples for guidance, for deliverance. But we find the poison creeping into those foundations as well. Our questions are answered with irrelevant platitudes and empty satisfactions of our simple desire to be cared about, our need to be cared for. Our young people naturally look elsewhere for relief from out-of-control tuition debt, for an end to the limitless hurdles to achieving their goals, for the self-respect to resist unattainable standards of beauty and virulence and societal definitions of success. Too often, our young people see their future as a desolate plain with no harvest in sight.

We live in a nation of incredible abundance, with a wealth of resources, but we feel empty. We live in communities with boundless activities, but we feel listless. We live unfulfilled lives and seek to fill that void with the bread and circuses of the internet, with drinking and drugs, with absurd reality on the television, and real absurdity in our daily lives.

The time has come for a frank and honest conversation about religion. We must discuss our souls as individuals and our soul as a nation. The time to seek the answers to the questions that matter has arrived. Why am I here? What is the purpose of living? Can I find meaning in this insane asylum of a world? What can I do to ease my overwhelming pain?

Some offer simple answers to these questions. You are here because God created you. Your purpose consists of worshiping him. This life offers only a path to a better world after you die. You must endure the pain as a test of your faith that God possesses all of the answers. As children, these answers can work. In the pleasant world of coloring pages and tales of good conquering evil, we need no further explanations. But, as we grow older, we learn that these answers no longer suffice. We begin to question. We fill our doubtful gaps with more complicated rituals; we desperately strengthen our commitment to blind faith and traditions; and we greedily consume more complicated interpretations to the stories of our childhood.

But, despite our valiant efforts, we still feel lost and alone, hopeless and in pain. Our faith never seems strong enough and the answers begin to ring hollow. The zealous shout louder and we assure ourselves that they must be right. How else could they be so convinced of the truth? But, how can we believe their truths when our life tells me differently?

Our own structure as a nation places the burden of resolving these conundrums on us. Our Constitution guarantees us the freedom to believe and to practice (within limits) our religions. As a nation, we declare no one religious belief to be “truth.” America does not proclaim that absolute morality resides within any one specific theology. We may consider others misguided or incorrect, and we can freely promote our particular versions of truth. But, those who profess to know “the” truth exhibit shocked indignation when refuted with facts and reason. Purveyors of divine insight claim persecution when their efforts to demonize people they consider sinful are deemed hateful and hypocritical.

Millions of people do not believe in the Christian god and live exemplary moral lives, just as many Christians do. Some people who do not hold Christian beliefs do awful things, just as do some professed Christians do. We do not live ethical lives because a supernatural agency makes it so. We live ethical lives because as human beings we make choices – choices to love and show compassion, or choices to be intolerant and selfish. A faith in some form of god that helps us live ethically is admirable. But faith in god is not required to be a good citizen, a spiritual person, or a soul aligned with the powers of the universe.

How, then, can I answer the burning questions without a belief in God? Some believe in Love. My Universalist predecessors preached that God is Love, and that works for many people. And while I often find fault with the texts attributed to the Apostle Paul, I agree with his assertion to the Corinthians that Love is patient and kind; Love is not arrogant or resentful; Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

Faith sometimes offers a wonderful power in our lives and can serve as a force for great good. But faith can also twist our perceptions and close our minds to the search for truth and meaning. So, when it comes to issues such as same-sex marriage and equality for LGBT individuals, I ache when I hear people profess their Christian faith to damn others, to sit in judgment on others, and to call down the wrath of the God they worship on others. And it pains me just as greatly when religious people stand mute while these voices of intolerance dominate the public conversation. There is no factual basis to believe that homosexuality is a “choice.” None. Therefore, if one claims the belief that we are made in the image of God, then our sexual orientation and gender identity is part of the grace bestowed by a loving deity who merely wants us to share that Love. We should practice ours faith to honor that gift and to respect its source. But Love is greater than faith. And the sharing of Love trumps any ritualistic practice or dogmatic adherence to sacred texts.

Relying on ancient passages written in another time and place, in a context wildly different than those we live in today ignores our most spectacular gifts as humans. If we are indeed children of a god, then that god bestowed upon us minds, emotions, and the capacity for discernment that raises us above the instincts of mere beasts. An active and engaged spiritual life uses our powers of reason, evaluates our life experiences, and amasses our collective powers of wisdom to determine what is moral. The spiritual life demands only that we understand and love each other. We are no longer children that need to view God as a schoolmaster beating unruly pupils, or an overseer whipping mindless drones. God is Love. It really is just that simple. And that choice lies in our hands.

And what does loving mean today? It means that we keep our beautiful and treasured traditions of spiritual practice but discard those outdated and meaningless rules that serve only to separate us. It means that we celebrate the marriage of loving people committing their lives to each other, whether they are a man and a woman, two men, or two women. It means that we say “Not One More” meaningless and stupid waste of precious life defending our obscene worship of guns. It means telling all women that they are beautiful just as they are, and telling all men that expressing kindness and gentleness does not show weakness. It means sharing the bounty in our lives with those less fortunate by paying living wages and fighting the root causes of poverty. It means providing every person with equal access to physical and mental health resources and freeing them from the crippling burdens of disease and affliction.

We live in a region of great wealth, knowledge, and potential. We can become a model of modern living by pioneering prosperity for every person. We merely need to heed the call to seek our own truths, to enable the search for truth by others, and then to come together in Beloved Community. It is possible and we have the power to do it.

Truth and Meaning: Hate

Emotions are the expressed transfer of living energy. When we feel, when we reside within an emotion, we emit a certain energy that others around us can sense. Children are the most transparent when radiating emotion. We easily sense when a child is joyful, confused, scared or frustrated.

As we grow older, we learn complicated emotional combinations and filters designed to hide our true emotions. The choreography of emotional exchange becomes a ballet of exquisite skill and complexity that opens the door to different kinds of feelings. But this dance also complicates our routines. As we see often in football, sometimes the “receiver” runs a different route than expected by the quarterback, and the passage of emotions fall incomplete to the ground.

As carriers of energy, emotions share many characteristics with living creatures. Some emotions hearken back to a more primitive state of reptilian instinct. Other, more mature emotions evoke feelings of family and tribal group. And some emotions combine with others in a symbiotic melding — a beautiful waltz of grace made possible by the willingness of those sharing the emotion to bare themselves, to make themselves fully vulnerable.

But there is a special class of emotions that share the attributes of a lesser life form — the parasite. These emotions wither and die without the energy stolen from other life forms. Hate is a parasite emotion. For hate only thrives by stealing vibrant life energy from others. Hate leeches the aerated blood of society, leaving only disease and weakness in its wake.

When someone expresses hate, the recipient naturally feels fear and anxiety in response. The recipient might naturally feel compelled to expend energy fending off the hate, and this only feeds the parasite. In this way, the hate-filled person poisons others and like a vampire drains the essence of life energy from a community.

But there is a cure for the parasite of hate. The medicine that repels the symptoms of hate is Love. For Love acts not only as a barrier to the viral attack of hate, Love offers a positive expression of emotion that not only makes the object of hate feel better, but also treats the root causes of hate. For in the end, the only difference between a parasite and a symbiote is cooperation. A parasite gives nothing and simply wallows in its own selfish desires. The symbiote returns gift for gift, bringing positive contributions to the living equation.

So when the parasite seeks to infect you with hate, do not feed its emptiness with fear or anger. Instead, inoculate yourself with the energy of Love. In this way, you also may help transform the useless parasite into a creature with contributions and, in time, its own Love to share.

Truth and Meaning: Abominations

“Abomination” is not a word one hears often in everyday conversation. I imagine that most people hear the word rarely during their lifetime.

Sadly, however, there is one group who uses this word obsessively in one particular context. Especially with the news stories about marriage equality and nondiscrimination laws, we have heard far too much use of this word in recent months.

So, lest anyone think that “abomination” is reserved only for their select purpose, let me provide my own list of things I feel are an abomination in America today.
  • With the most advanced medical system in the history of humanity, it is an abomination that some still fight against efforts to provide people in need with basic medical insurance.
  • When the wealthy get every financial advantage society can offer, it is an abomination that hard-working and honest people who need assistance are vilified and stereotyped as lazy.
  • It is an abomination that our military veterans suffer staggering rates of suicide and mental illness and that they must often wait months to receive medical treatment.
  • The selective misquoting of founders like Jefferson and Adams by so-called patriots to promote narrow-mindedness, bigotry and selfishness is an abomination.
  • The perversion of a religion of love and inclusion to persecute others is an abomination.
  • Capital punishment by any means is an abomination.
  • The ongoing treatment of women as second class citizens in the workplace and as objects for the sexual gratification of men in general is an abomination.
  • Assigning any validity to the irrational opinions of those who deny overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change, evolution, contraception and the nature of sexual orientation and gender identity is an abomination.
  • That anyone thinks unfettered access to weapons of mass killing is in the best interests of this society is an abomination.

Truth and Meaning: Mythic Struggles

Every religion has its mythic stories. We teach our children in Sunday School classes and we share them during worship services. Our stories inspire us to want to act, and instruct us on how to act.

The mythic stories of my religion involve resistance. But our resistance has not been against tyrants or kings, but against ideas and prevailing social norms. Katarzyna Weigel and Michael Servetus were burned at the stake resisting the idea that every person had to believe what the majority of people believed. When Edward Everett Hale and Lydia Maria Child helped lead the abolition movement, they resisted the dominant paradigm that accepted that some persons can be treated as property. And when Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb died at the hands of racist cowards in Alabama, they resisted the notion that all people do not have the same inherent rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Some generations don’t have the chance to write a mythic story. The great causes arrive only occasionally, and are often not recognized until they are past. But I believe that we are living through such a period right now — a period in which a shadow hovers over the land and whose minions march on many fronts. That shadow is Regressivism. That shadow is the delusion held by some that we need to return to a time that never actually existed — a time during which the masses lived contentedly under the thumb of a benevolent and privileged few.

The Regressive is a cunning adversary. He poses as the polite academician, the well-groomed politician, the business owner from humble roots, the preacher of a loving god. The Regressive promises freedom from fear, freedom from government interference, freedom from immorality. And you pay for these freedoms with sacrifices to the altar of gods of Regressivism. The price? Sacrifice the Other. Sacrifice LGBT folk because they are abominations. Sacrifice women because they cannot be trusted with the responsibility of reproductive choice. Sacrifice the poor because their labor has no value. Sacrifice people of color because they are inherently inferior. Sacrifice your safety because guns matter more than people. Sacrifice the sick, the elderly, the mentally ill, the homeless, the immigrant, and the poor because they are not worthy.

And who resides in this godhead of Regressivism? Greed. Ignorance. Complacency. Power. Lust. Hate. Arrogance. Intolerance. These modern day golden calves demand sacrifices of blood and life and will settle for nothing less. And in return, they offer the banality of cable television, Twitter triviality, and the narcissism of a bloated America that wallows in wealth while half of the world starves.

But how can we fight these gods, whose resources to oppress us seem endless? We start locally and we start small. Throughout Michigan, towns are passing ordinances to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in nondiscrimination laws. Bay County adopted one small piece and Saginaw continues to wrestle with a much broader ordinance. Each time we take up this struggle, the shadow of Regressivism sends forth its soldiers armed with bigotry, a strategy of misinformation and the tactics of fear. The time is coming for Midland to enter the fray. The forces arrayed against us here will be strong, but we will prevail — we must prevail.

Truth and Meaning: The Call for Moral Dissent

As you read this, my wife and I are driving back to Midland from Raleigh, N.C.. Why did I preach my sermon via Internet video and not from my pulpit this morning? I preached from the road this morning because my predecessors did. Because I can. And because I must.

For centuries, Unitarian Universalist ministers stood at the forefront of change movements: abolishing slavery; developing public education and public health systems; securing civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities, women, LGBT folk and other marginalized people; defending our religious liberties; promoting peace and disarmament; and protecting our representative democracy. I stand on the shoulders of great men and women who have struggled, sacrificed and even died defending our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And I have the tremendous good fortune to serve a congregation in Midland that supports my work. It is my duty to carry on our legacy of activism.

As a financially secure, straight, white male in a society that privileges all of these things, I can march and be noticed, speak and be heard, protest and be acknowledged. I went to Raleigh because of the injustices taking place in North Carolina affecting our most vulnerable citizens. I went to Raleigh because of the young black man in prison serving time that a white man does not; because of the woman living in a domestic violence shelter with no car, no time off from work and inadequate child care; because of the students in school with no voice and no political influence regarding their future. I went to Raleigh because I can be in Raleigh and they cannot. It is my duty to march, to speak and to protest on their behalf.

When the call from the North Carolina NAACP went out for clergy to come to Raleigh, I remembered a similar call that was answered by the Rev. James Reeb and 100 other Unitarian Universalist ministers 40 years ago when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for us to stand with him in Selma. Reeb was later killed by racist cowards on the streets of Selma. The circumstances have changed, but the issues very certainly remain the same. I went to Raleigh because I must do whatever I can to stand with my brothers and sisters in justice, equity and compassion, and in defense of the democratic process we hold sacred.

The situation in Michigan today is no less serious. Our legislature continues its war against women by cutting their access to medical treatment and ignoring their voices in Lansing. Our government continues attacking LGBT folk by sanctioning discrimination and limiting the civil rights of loving gay couples. People with inordinate wealth are funding efforts to destroy organized labor and maintain a permanent and growing underclass by suppressing wages and cutting necessary benefits. Gerrymandering and emergency managers have stripped voting power away from half of our state’s African Americans.

Michigan is better than this. We are better than those who would turn our state into a feudal theocracy. We are better than this because true people of faith love their neighbors without regard to their race, creed, identity or gender. True people of faith care about the poor, the sick, the prisoner, the helpless and the hopeless. True people of faith will unite to overcome greed and power lust. We will unite fearlessly, hand in hand, to live in peace because the truth will set us free. And, until that time, those of us who can will rise in moral dissent against injustice wherever it arises. We will march because moral dissent is our calling.