Monday, October 11, 2010

Six 9/11s a Year

We've spent billions and committed what will be trillions (yes, in the plural) of dollars to the nominal cause of responding to the attacks of 9/11/2001. We've been so serious about this that in addition to the wealth committed, we've also sacrificed the lives of thousands (the final tally's not in, but more than died on 9/11) of US service people, and the brains, minds, and bodies of tens of thousands more who came home (or will come home) permanently maimed.

It's dismal news that the analysts tell us that it will be for naught, that the way we've spent American lives and treasure has actually made the world more unsafe and unstable, and made the US more a target than it was. But let's set that aside for now. What's not debatable is the cost, in dollars and flesh.

So what would we do about something that's causing as many unnecessary, innocent deaths in the US, every year? What about something causing six times as many deaths--every year?

Would we commit to trillions on trillions of dollars, risk thousands of lives, and talk about a generational effort (it's not a conflict, so that word has to be modified...) to resolve it, once and for all?

The Institutes of Medicine of the National Academies released a report six years ago that observes,
"Lack of health insurance causes roughly 18,000 unnecessary deaths every year in the United States. "
About 8,000 of those are infant deaths, the result of the shameful infant mortality rate that the US suffers from. And that's directly attributable to a lack of prenatal health care. That's the estimate--and observation--of the Centers for Disease Control.

We do very well--essentially as well as anywhere in the world--with caring for premature babies. But because of our health care system, we have many more premature babies per 100,000 births than other developed nations. And that's attributable to our health care system's failure to care for pregnant women.

Most distressing in all this is that the picture's not getting better. It's getting worse.
In 1950, the United States was fifth among the leading industrialized nations with respect to female life expectancy at birth, surpassed only by Sweden, Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands.
That's from HealthAffairs. The same source observes
The last available measure of female life expectancy had the United States ranked at forty-sixth in the world. As of September 23, 2010, the United States ranked forty-ninth for both male and female life expectancy combined.

All this while being the "leader" of the free world.

It's not for lack of funding. We spend more, and more per capita, than any other nation. Since 1970, our spending has increased at a rate significantly above what any other nation's increase in health care costs have been. But our results... have been abysmal. Spending more and more, we cover a smaller and smaller percentage of our population. Life expectancy has fallen a long way from the top tier of nations, and more and more American infants are put at risk of early death.


And we do almost nothing about it.

Friday, September 03, 2010

We're all minorities.

I recently read this in the comments (electronic letters to the editor?) to an article about a case in NJ where the police really screwed up while presenting Miranda rights to a Latino minor and his Spanish-speaking mother. All of which I offer just to provide context. But this isn't about that case. It's about the comment.

Constitutional rights should NOT be afforded to ILLEGALS.

The writer insists that "illegals" should not be afforded Constitutional rights. One has to wonder what rights they should be afforded, in that case. But the Constitution is pretty clear; in most cases, it asserts, rights are inherent in human beings, period (in a few cases, they inhere to citizens, but those are a narrow class of things like political rights, the right to vote, etc.).

Should constitutional rights be "afforded" to someone who has committed murder? Isn't that a crime that's far, far, far worse than the mere infraction (which is all it is, legally) of crossing the border in a manner not in accordance with the law?

Why does it--why do we--affirm (not afford!) the same rights to people who may have, and who have, violated some law?

The answer is simple. It's one to commit to memory and remember every time our sense of anger and outrage and desire for punishment (we like to think of it as "justice" when we feel that way) surges. We affirm and uphold the rights of everyone. All the time. Even--especially--the people who have done terrible, terrible things. Even people who aren't like us. People who are different. People who are scary, who trigger that primitive thing deep in our brains that worries about leopards in trees and monsters under the bed.

We uphold that for them, but not for them. We do it for ourselves.

You see, we do it to ensure that in that terrible moment where we are looked at--justly or not--by someone as the scary thing, the monster, the other, the bad person, we are not outside of being treated with rights. In doing so we are ensured just and equitable treatment by a system that rejects the impulse that judges without facts and understanding and imposes a harsh punishment on the monster under the bed, so that it never, never, never comes back.

But of course it does. The monster under the bed is almost entirely in our heads. It's always with us.

No matter how often we kill it, or imprison it, or treat it brutally (which, I suspect, really doesn't make it go away at all. It feeds the real monster under the bed; the one in our heads).

We "afford" rights to people who might be people who immigrated illegally for the same reason that we afford rights to people accused of murder, or theft, or speeding. We do it for ourselves, so that our rights are protected and held sacred.

The minute that we carve out an exception to this principle, the minute that we except a person, or a group from having the same rights, we put ourselves at extreme risk. If anyone can be put outside the protect of the law, then anyone can be put outside. Including you.

After all, each of us is part of some minority that others might dislike, despise, or fear. History proves that.

It's the lesson that Rev. Martin Niemöller wrote about;

They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

You can replace any of those groups, those categories, with any others. Niemöller was writing about what actually happened in Germany. But the lesson is a universal one. (It's worth noting that in the US today, despite the widespread failure of Communism, it--and Communists--are still a pretty powerful monster under the bed. So are trade unionists, for many, despite being down to only several percent of the population (despite their having provided us 40 hour weeks and many other good things...). And it's still easy to find people who fear and hate Jews, too.) Mexican, Tea Partier, Liberal, Conservative, Mormon, Muslim, Gay, Evangelical, and on and on. No group is the majority. Even more to the point, no one is the majority. They just look like it in the moment... if you don't look too closely.

The majority is always a collection of minorities who are--for the moment--ignoring their multitude of differences.

Anyone can fall out of that coalition the minute that they become the moment's monster under the bed.

"Illegals" are afforded the same rights as everyone else, because we insist that everyone has those rights. Not out of generosity, but out of the deepest self-interest. So that when "they" come for us, we're not outside the circle of light that keeps the monsters away.

It's important. The monsters don't like the light. As long as we make sure it shines on all of us, they'll stay deep in the darkness in our heads and hearts.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Social Justice and Modern (Biblical) Obligations

From the very beginning of the Jewish state in Canaan, there was a fundamental (divine) directive to share. The land was divided up among the tribes, and the tribes were to support and sustain their own (but that’s not all). Recognizing that some would become wealthy, and would hoard, and that some would become poor, simply through ill fortune, or being born to poor, unfortunate parents, God’s directive was that the land be taken back and redistributed equitably every 50 years. Every seven years, all debts were to be canceled, forgiven, forgotten.

Now, it’s questionable (say the scholars) as to whether that was ever actually done. But you know what, that’s moot. These folks want to argue that they shouldn’t have to care for the sick, the ill, the unfortunate, the homeless—that it should be voluntary, that the state should not be in the business of doing that with money taken from them in taxes. It ought to be... well, optional. Pure charity.


Let’s just note in passing that for all their talk, that voluntary care of the poor isn’t happening—and hasn’t, not in this country, nor any other, to a level that begins to be sufficient. So the idea that it’ll get taken care of by good Christians out of charity is poppycock. Not that there aren’t all kinds of charitable works—Christian, Jewish, Muslim and otherwise. There are. But not enough. Not nearly enough. Not even close.

So, back to that argument from Biblical grounds.

Just WHO was responsible in ancient Israel (and Judah) for such care?

Well, the original Israelite community was tribal; the tribes were responsible. But those chieftaincies didn’t last very long. Various pressures from inside and outside resulted in the creation of the Israelite kingdom. So the king took on the responsibilities of the relatively anarchic tribal confederation. The Hebrew scriptures are pretty clear; just check almost any of the prophets—raging criticism of the wealthy (that would be the rich…) and the powerful (nobility, priests…) and particularly the kings. Railing against those storing up abundance and living in plush accommodations with gold and ivory and pleasant oils, luxuries… while the poor starved, while widows and orphans were dispossessed and abused.

Check any of the prophets. Shall I wait while you check? I recommend Isaiah (an especial fave of most Christians). I recommend Isa 1:14-17.Or heck, there’s 5:1-23 (there’s more, too). Gee, my translation even subheads Isaiah 5:8-23 “Social Injustice Denounced”—what do you mean that social justice doesn’t appear in the Bible?

Most of the justification for the destruction of Israel and Judah, and the Babylonian exile, is that the rulers and the powerful were corrupt, greedy, selfish and unjust. They didn’t share with the rest of the people, they let the poor starve and they stole their land. Which was God's anyway, according to the Bible, and people only got to use it—and only until it was redistributed again.

Short form: having more than enough when there are people homeless and hungry is viewed by God as the worst of sins—just like theft, just like murder. In fact, it is essentially apostasy; the willful violation of God’s commandments. Sin.

So, back to the question of responsibility. Who’s responsible? Well, the king. And so you find the prophets just ripping into the kings for their malfeasance, warning everyone that God is going to devastate the kingdom, that they will be laid low, slain, dragged off into slavery... and that it's God's will if this crap continues.

But heck, what’s that got to do with today and all those folks who don’t want to share with the poor? They’re not king (for which we can all be grateful…).

No, they’re part of The People. Here in the USA, that means that they are, by definition, collectively the sovereigns—just like being king. Which means we’re ALL responsible. It’s not just a question of whatever charity we feel like giving. We bear the responsibility. We The People—the government.We stand in the same relationship to the missing king as the king did to the defunct tribal confederation. All those responsibilities, from defense to justice to... caring for the poor... those are ours.

So when they whine that it’s unfair to tax them to give alms to the poor, to care for the sick, to house the homeless, to feed the hungry… they’re wrong. All those conservative Christians have a responsibility to meet—as sovereign—to see that the wealth of the nation is shared equitably with all, before excess is used for comfort and luxury. Taxation is how We The People take our money from our pockets to do our collective business.

It’s a Biblical, social justice obligation for good Christians and Jews.

For the rest of us, there are other good arguments. But that's for another post, some other day.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Would I Be Offended?

The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt reports that she was once asked by her son if she'd be offended if he chose a different religion when he grew up. She observes that as his mother, no, she and his father raised their kids to think and make choices for themselves. But as a UU minister, well... yeah, it would bother her.

I'm not sure my response would be any different. Just differences in nuance.

I grew up UU, so the choice was mine to stay or not (or, given the realities of my teen years abroad, to return to being an active UU or not...). Neither of my parents were ministers, so that element's not the same, but I'm not sure that it's different for any UU and their kids--save in degree. I know older members of our congregation who raised their kids in the fellowship--and some think of themselves as UU (but don't attend), and some attend somewhere, or here, now and then, and at least some have adult children who went off and chose very different religions.

For any parent, regardless of their faith, I think there's an ouch in that.

The roots of the word, religion, refer to those things that tie us (back) together, with each other and the holy. Having one's child reject those things for others tends to feel like one's less connected, disconnected from, not tied back together with... one's offspring. Ouch.

Would I be offended? Not by the act. Part of me would be pleased that my child felt the freedom to make that right choice (for them, for now)--at least as long as they felt able to be above board with me about it. But there'd still be an "ouch" to it.

Still, I can imagine reasons--people make these kind of choices in order (sometimes) to marry a beloved who is a devout and committed member of some faith tradition. With whatever reservations and mental Twister....

What would offend me would be having them reject the core values we've raise them with. Which are, of course, pretty UU. But I've talked with enough people who aren't UU, who listen to or read the seven principles and observe that they don't really have an disagreements... to know that there are plenty of people who share our values who aren't UU.

Like so many historic figures from the UU past, I guess I'm more interested in the universals of (our) religion than in the particular peculiarities of it, less devoted to the transient in religion and focused on the permanent.

Besides, one of my favorite Oliver Wendell Holmes quotes comes to mind; "We are all tattooed in our cradles with the beliefs of our tribes." If one of my children ever takes that step, I'll offer them my blessings on their journey, and observe (to myself, I hope, only) "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."

Friday, July 02, 2010

Can we please get on with it?

The CATO Institute says it will improve American household incomes by $180 billion/year by 2019.

The Center for American Progress says it will improve American household incomes by $189 billion/year.

Quoting CATO:
[I]t is worth noting that very different think tanks employing two different models have come to the same result: Legalization of immigration will expand the U.S. economy and incomes, while an “enforcement only” policy of further restrictions will only depress economic activity.
Quoting CAP:

The U.S. government has attempted for more than two decades to put a stop to unauthorized immigration from and through Mexico by implementing “enforcement-only” measures along the U.S.-Mexico border and at work sites across the country. These measures have failed to end unauthorized immigration and placed downward pressure on wages in a broad swath of industries.
Comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) would benefit the US economy by something on the order of $2.5 trillion (the studies agree).

Oh, and that fantasy of stuffing all the undocumented into boxcars and shipping them out of the country?
Mass deportation reduces U.S. GDP by 1.46 percent. This amounts to $2.6 trillion in cumulative lost GDP over 10 years, not including the actual cost of deportation.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

What's a Soul?

As its Big May Question, UU Salon asks, "What is a Soul?"

Does it exist before we are born? Does it disappear when we die? It is unchangeable, or capable of growing/shrinking/strengthening? Can you lose your soul, or gain one?
Answers to such a question are explicitly rooted in one's theology. Those are theological questions. Is there a soul? What is it? Depending on what one believes, those answers may be defined (by a faith's doctrines, or by authorities who've already weighed in...). Or not.

Unitarian Universalists, of course, don't have an easy out; we don't share a theology that defines these answers. Even if we've adopted an existing theological view, within the context of our UUism, that offers answers, that's something that we have to consciously adopt.

So what are my answers?

Well they arise from the things I've already concluded. I'm not a supernaturalist (and having said that, I think we actually know so very little that I'm entirely confident that there are things that look entirely supernatural...). I'm some form of pantheist. "This"--all of this that we see, touch, feel, experience (and the much, much greater part that we do not) is part of what I describe as nature. And that's all there is.

"Soul" is a term I use to describe that experiential essence of being; the "I" that seems to exist within a living being. Not the thinking, but the aware observer that experiences being aware and observing. Perhaps that is an illusion--but if so, it's a "real illusion," in the same sense that solid objects are illusions.

I tend not to believe in a soul as an entity that has a coherent existence separate from the living wave-form of a being. (But I'm entirely at ease with the idea of being wrong; it's something humans are particularly adept at--being spectacularly, flamboyantly, fervently wrong). It's a part of the universe, too. It, I suspect, ends with death. And just like matter, it doesn't go away. "Away" is a false concept. There's no away to go to. It just changes form. Matter decays into component materials and becomes other forms of matter--living or not. Energy goes off as well. The essential thing that is us doesn't remain coherently us; instead, traces of what we were end up smeared across the rest of the planet and all life and through the universe (given enough time).

It's an answer that's actually the same as other answers--it just depends on the perspective one takes on it. It's entirely possible to look at this and say "There's only one soul, and it's shared and interwoven through everything and everywhen." Which is about as good a metaphor for god as anything I've heard.

Can it die? No. Can it be squandered? Sure. Soul is--as best I can make out--'meant' to be exercised and enriched. Shared.

Monday, April 12, 2010

UU membership shrinks... a proposal

I read (unsurprised, but not pleased) that the overall membership of the congregations of the Association shrank this past year. A rather small decrease in the grand scheme, but still, a second year of slight decline.

No doubt there are many solutions possible. Some of them might even be worth undertaking.

Here's one that recognizes an unintended discouragement to membership that the UUA imposes on most member congregations. Large congregations, as I recall, are assessed their dues based on a percentage of their budget. It doesn't matter if they have a great couple years and grow by 30%. Their numbers don't directly affect their dues. Their budget drives their dues. Assuming that new members come in (as has generally been the case) paying below average pledges (there are a variety of reasons for this, all of them understandable and... that's not on topic now), the large congregation's budget would grow, but not by 30%. So growth is a good thing for large UU congregations.

But in those below that dues category, dues are essentially a poll tax on congregational members. You're in a small or small-medium congregation and you gain 30% new members? Yay! Uh... but those 30% won't (see above) increase the budget 30% for some time to come.... However, the dues the congregation will pay will increase by... 30%.

There's a direct effect I've seen to this.

In encouraging new members... there's also a frank and honest conversation about what membership means (that's good), and that it costs the congregation for each new member. Some congregations simply require that new members pay the cost of their membership. Others don't. There are explanations and justifications for each viewpoint....

But it's ironic. At the very time that we're leaning harder on our need to be more open to a more diverse membership, without regard to all those categories we could list in our sleep, we have a barrier that is economic. That means that the relatively poor, those who are young and strapped, or those who are financially strapped for whatever reason... are discouraged from membership.

Which drives down the membership of not-large congregations--and drives down membership of the UUA congregations as a whole.

Does it happen? I know of cases. I know of a woman who would be a member of my congregation right now--but she knows she can't give that much, and since it costs the congregation UUA and District dues if she becomes a member, she's not. She gives what she can anyway, supporting the congregation (but not the UUA...). I believe I know of others, but haven't had the conversation with them that would make it explicit.

Want more members? Use one single system for congregational dues that *doesn't* rest on a poll tax. It's discouraging potential members. It may also be helping hamstring efforts at being welcoming and affirming to all who think they could find their home among us.

It's funny, there are those who insist that to *be* a UU, one has to be a member of a congregation. I understand the idea. It has some--but not enough, I think--merit. But if that's the case, then what we're saying is that there's a wealth-test to be a UU, too--unless you happen to be able to be a member of a large congregation.

A simple percentage of budget scheme would make a lot of things easier on a lot of people. We'd still want to count membership for other purposes. But I think using it to determine funding for the UUA and Districts is a bad idea.

Monday, March 08, 2010

A Reply (and comments) to misstreebc

There being no way for me to post a response to a posting on livejournal (without creating an account, which I do not want, that would oblige me to accept some spam from the corporation behind live journal...), I'm responding here.

The temptation to just let it go, ignore it, and move on would usually win at that point... but misstreebc is clearly speaking of my congregation; I recognize the service from the description.
Today was my 3rd time at a UU service.

I enjoyed the service very much, and am very, very in accord with the idea of a church whose beliefs are based on values and principles rather than creed or dogma.

There is one thing that bothered me, though. The sermon was about church history and a sister congregation in a Romanian village. It was an interesting sermon, and made me appreciate the religious freedom we have in the United States. A couple of times, though, the minister broke into the song "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead", and seemed to be celebrating the deaths of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceau,sescu and his wife. I can totally understand celebrating justice, the renewal of religious freedom, and the end of an oppressive regime, but to actually celebrate their deaths really bothers me. IMO, life must always be respected, no matter how vile the person. I could never celebrate the death of another human being.

From what I understand, this seems to violate a core Unitarian belief in the worth and value of every human being. Am I right?
First, I was a little taken aback myself. Not so much because Ceausescu's death was being celebrated (though I did notice...), but because I wondered at how the folk in the congregation who identify as Pagan, as Wiccan, who use the term witch to identify themselves felt.

I remember Ceausescu's fall--and death--and as a fan of politics (national and international) and history, I'd have to say... few have been more deserving of execution.

Personally, I'm opposed to the death penalty on a variety of grounds. But I suspect, being honest with myself, that were I a Romanian of that time, in a position to help make that decision, I'd have made the same one. The man was a veritable fountain of evil actions, and there were certainly forces in the country that would have sought to free him and restore him to power. Had be been freed, there'd have been a vicious civil war, and where he had power, there'd have been a sea of blood.

4,000 were massacred--on his orders--at Timisoara. Something like another 80,000 were killed on his orders during his regime. In addition, then (1989) exiled dissident Mihai Botez estimated that at least 15,000 Romanians died annually from starvation, cold, and shortages even though Romania was rich enough to provide those basic requirements. (Ceausescu chose not to do so. He was trying to pay down an international debt to avoid having the failure of his policies revealed....)

It's an imperfect world. It's important to remember that huge numbers suffered badly under his rule. Minorities were demonized in ways that Fred Phelps fantasizes about. Literally thousands of ethnically Hungarian villages were destroyed, meaning many Unitarian congregations were victims, meaning literally tens of thousands of people who are close religious kin were his victims, along with the Romany and others.

It's a sad, sad thing that there are any human deaths that are good things. But the blunt fact is that there are. Across Romania, celebrations broke out spontaneously.

Perhaps the minister could have handled it more delicately, but in terms of expressing how most Romanians felt--and particularly how those who aren't ethnic Romanians felt--the trope from The Wizard of Oz, "Ding, dong, the Witch is dead!" is probably pretty apt. That we, as UU congregations, hold life very highly and affirm the inherent worth and dignity is true. But our sympathies lie with those who have not been the oppressor. Ceausescu was pretty much entirely the oppressor. Think about what Romanians--people who'd been his victims, who'd been oppressed and terrorized by him--must have felt about him to decide to execute him on Christmas Day.

Ding, dong!

No, it's not the enlightened tear that the Buddha might have shed. But it's honest--and the minister was trying to convey what things had been like, and how people felt. It's so easy for us to say, in this country, what we'd never do. We've never faced it (most of us), or anything like it.

You ask an interesting question. Does it violate our affirmation of the worth and dignity of every person to celebrate a death?

My own answer is that were that all it was, I'd say yes. But when that death is utterly woven into liberation for millions, and means the literal salvation from misery, suffering and death for many thousands... I fully understand it. I suspect that were we common citizens of Bucharest in 1989, we'd have celebrated.

Free at last, free at last.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Maybe we've just been misunderstanding...

what "bipartisan support" really means.

It's good to see that there's widespread support for the Constitution still.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sometimes... even good news gets overspun

Ok, I want to preface this by saying that I've participated pretty heavily in the UU process on Peacemaking--and that I think this is a very important issue and that I support it.

So, from the official (I think it's official...) UU Peacemakers blog:
Congregations voted to place the Peacemaking Statement of Conscience on the agenda of General Assembly (GA) this summer. The participation rate was 74% (counting "yes," "no," and "abstain" votes), with 38% of congregations voting "yes" and 0.8% voting "no". The remaining congregations either voted "abstain" or did not vote.
74% participated. That's spectacular. Since the old process had seen nothing better (as I recall) than 10% and the new one mandated a minimum of 25% as a sort of "quorum" to permit GA to consider it, I had thought it was setting us up for a lot of failure. I'll take my crow medium, with some BBQ sauce, please.

74% - 38% = 36% -- of whom 35.2% abstained?

What is that about?

It takes energy, effort, time, people... to respond. We've historically mustered a lot of ignorance and apathy over issues.... And now we're seeing active apathy? Or is that conflict, inability to agree on how to respond?

Alas, that 38% in favor looks far less spectacular in that light.

But I look forward to seeing what's next, because--as I said--I think this is really important.

Where I've Been...

I've spent the last six months doing CPE (hospital chaplaincy as in intern), taking classes at the same time, and being a (less than) full-time parent. Plus a variety of other things... followed by a month of intensive classes at Meadville Lombard.

I hope to start blogging occasionally soon... but have a pretty intense schedule for the next <> year or so.