wizdUUm Blogs on Social Justice

There Is Always A Reckoning

The theme for this second week of Commit2Respond's Climate Justice Month is reckoning.  Reckoning, as in being held accountable.  Each time as I've read the word I think of another, karma.  Not karma as it is popularly known in the West – a system of punishment and reward meted out for good and bad behavior respectively – but karma as I learned it from the Dharmic perspective – the consequences of one's actions.  Karma is as natural and as inescapable as Newtonian laws (at the macro level).  For every action, there is a reaction.  For every action, there is karma, which is the consequences of action.

 

Karma is the ultimate accountability.  Sooner or later, the consequences of our actions must be faced.  There is no supernatural exemption, no way out of a mess except through.

 

This is in stark contrast to the traditional Christian view of sin and salvation, in which we are born guilty (of original sin) even before we've done anything, and yet we can escape the consequences of our guilt (even extreme guilt) via the sacrifice of another.  This second week of Climate Justice Month also coincides with Holy Week in the (Western) Christian tradition.  Today, Good Friday, we remember that Jesus was brutally tortured to death. Whether one believes that the ultimate cause was the Roman empire squashing an insurrection or a wrathful God demanding appeasement, Jesus too faced consequences for past actions.

 

The traditional (Protestant) Christian view is that because Jesus died for you, you do not have to face what would otherwise be the consequences of your sins.  Even though many people have since rejected the theology, I think that a version of it continues to permeate the Western world.  That is, people widely hold the belief that it's possible to avoid the consequences of actions, even if they no longer believe in God(s).  Somehow, no matter how dire the situation seems to be, there can be some seemingly miraculous way out, such that we don't have to make a sacrifice ourselves.  Our movies feed us this message over and over again.  A supporting character takes the bullet for the main protagonist so that the latter can drive off into the sunset. Advertisements perpetuate the same message.  A diet pill where “the pounds just melt off” rather than us having to exercise.  Is it any wonder that we hope, somehow science will find ways to magically sequester carbon, or generate unlimited energy, or take us to another planet?  We hope that something will save us so that we won't have to do it ourselves, won't have to change our ways.  Indeed, the task of addressing climate change seems too big, too daunting to accomplish ourselves.  And thus even in the undeniable face of the urgent need to act, we continue as we've been doing, simultaneously feeling hopeless and clinging to hope for miraculous salvation.

 

In the Buddhist view, however, there can be no miraculous salvation because there is karma, the consequences of our actions.  There may be seeming temporary reprieves, but such measures only delay the inevitable. For example, finding a new place to dump garbage doesn't clean up the previous place; it only means there is now one more polluted place that we'll eventually have to clean.  The use of extreme forms of fossil fuels - mountaintop removal coal, deep sea oil, fracked gas, tar sands oil - may seem like a reprieve from having to find alternative, renewable forms energy, but all these practices wreak even greater ecological havoc that we will have to address. Putting coal-burning plants in poorer neighborhoods and communities of color may seem like a way for those of us who are not living in those areas to avoid the consequences, but eventually they catch up with all of us, as they are doing now, AND we'll also have to make amends for systemic racism and classism.

 

We have cut down and burned forests that would clean our air. We have sent tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  We have filled the seas with oil spills, and the rivers with mountaintop debris. Our glaciers are melting. Our seas are rising.  And weather patterns that we've relied on for millennia and built our civilizations around have drastically changed. Our collective karma has caught up with us ad we are in the reckoning. There is no way out of our situation except through it.

 

The good news, however, is that karma goes both ways. If we dug the hole we're currently in, we can also climb back out and fill it in.  Our salvation, our liberation, is in our own hands, by our actions. And just as it was possible for us to do something as big as change the climate of our Earth, it's just as possible to do something as big as to repair it.  "Drop by drop is the water pot filled.But it will require different action on our part.

California Water Policies Show Priorities

Lake Oroville in Butte County, CA

The headline screamed across the page: "NASA Scientist Predicts California Has One Year of Water Left!" Famiglietti later said he was misquoted and that he was talking about our reservoirs, only part of our overall water supply. But it doesn't take a NASA scientist to know that, four years into record drought, California is in bad shape. The before and after pictures of lakes and snow caps show a state that is drying up.

Given the urgent need for effective action, it was alarming to see the online comments in response to the article. People blamed green lawns, swimming pools, and ultimately overpopulation. This thinking mirrors the messages from our state officials: don't water your lawn, take shorter showers, put a brick in your toilet tank. While I am entirely in favor of xeriscaping and other personal practices that lessen our impact on Mother Earth, the reality is that it isn't the number of residents nor our “water-wasteful ways” that are taxing California resources. Estimates vary widely yet still tell a similar story:

  • Depending on whom you believe, between 6-14% of California's water goes to residential use. All the toilets, showers, bathtubs, washing machines, dishwashers, lawns, and yes, even swimming pools, in residential properties amounts to about 10% of total water use.

  • Depending on whom you believe, between 40-85% of California's water goes to agriculture. (Most estimates say about 80%.) Just the amount of water needed for the miles of almond orchards alone is the same as domestic water use for the state's entire 38.8 million residents.  Residents are fined $500 for over-watering lawns but corporate farmers are not required to use the most water-efficient irrigation techniques.

  • Despite dire drought, California continues to allow fracking, which uses billions of gallons of water per year. But that isn't the only strain that fracking poses on California's water supply. Once the water has been used and irreversibly contaminated with chemicals and heavy metals, it's disposed of underground, where it has contaminated potable ground water.

  • Despite dire drought, California continues to allow private companies to bottle our water and sell it for their profit. While residential water use is increasingly monitored, companies like Nestlé, under its Arrowhead and Pure Life brands, extract water without any regulation from local agencies.

California's water crisis is so severe that Gov Brown declared a state of emergency last year and recently signed a $1 billion emergency spending bill to address the situation. But if you look at the bill, it leaves corporate interests intact while putting ever more pressure on residential “water wasters.”  Telling residents, who collectively comprise just 10% of our annual water usage that we need to cut back, while placing no restrictions on corporate interests that make up more than 80% of water usage does not make sense. 

Some might argue that we need to support farms because of the economy and jobs.  However, Gov Brown supports diverting essential water from the smaller, family-owned farms and fisheries of the Sacramento River Delta in order to bolster the larger, corporate-owned farms of the Central Valley. These same corporate farms use chemical pesticides that have poisoned the local water supplies of the people who live near and work for them.

Some might argue that we need to allow fracking for the oil and for jobs. However, federal officials have cut their estimate of the amount of recoverable oil in the Monterey Shale deposits by 96%. (That's right, less than 1/20th of original estimates.) Yet we would poison precious water so that fossil fuel companies can squeeze out what little profits they can.

One can only conclude that despite the urgent need for change, state officials continue to favor the profits of corporations over the best interests of the people.  And in that respect, what is happening in California is instructive to the rest of the country. 

On a spiritual level, these policies also hint at the pervasive, destructive belief that humans are somehow inherently bad for the environment (ie - "overpopulation", "too many of us").  This forces us into a false choice between caring for our own welfare and that of our Earth and sibling species.  (No wonder so many people decide not to care!)  In reality, the problems caused by bad environmental policies could be remedied if we had the will to change. 

Do not accept the lie that it's California residents who are responsible for the water crisis.  Do not let corporate interests off the hook.  Please sign one, two or all of the following petitions:

 

Color-Blind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below are the reflections I shared with First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco for MLK Sunday service, 2015.  As worship associate, it was my task to speak (about race) from personal experience, not to preach about systemic injustices perpetuated against others.  So that's what I did. (Image from empathyeducates.org.)

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When I was a teenager, I was much smarter than I am now, judging by how much I thought I knew. All the social problems that grownups seemed unable to remedy... I thought I knew the solutions. One of those seemingly intractable problems was racism. Racism, or so I thought, was treating people badly based on inherited differences in physical traits, the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, the shape of their eyes... So the solution seemed obvious to me. Encourage people to be color-blind, to not see race. Eventually, we'd all interbreed, race would disappear, and so would racism. Problem solved.

I should mention that I grew up here in San Francisco. And while I had a few experiences of being verbally and even physically harassed over race, in general, I grew up relatively sheltered, which is what my parents had worked hard for. As I moved into academia in young adulthood, that degree of shelter only increased. In grad school at Caltech where half of the graduate students were foreign born and people tended to be pretty liberal, it was so rare to experience overt bigotry that on the few occasions that it happened I could brush it off as personal ignorance, which it is. My friends (who were mainly white) treated me just like them, which is what I wanted. Or so I thought.

But every now and then, something would happen that would disturb the cocoon around me. I remember when Michael Chang came on the scene as a professional tennis player. I was so excited, until one of my classmates chided me for celebrating Chang's success because of his race. After all, if we're colorblind, I'm not supposed to have noticed that as I was growing up there had been no one who looked like me succeeding in sports. There was the time I tried to explain to my boyfriend how my parents would argue with friends over who would “get to pay” the restaurant bill, except the argument was scripted and they would take turns “losing.” He incredulously accused my parents of being dishonest because they didn't mean what they actually said. I knew he was being unfair but couldn't explain why. After all, if we're color-blind, then everyone should conform to the same cultural norms, “our norms”, and white American culture values direct communication. And I remember the night a distressed friend confided in me about the argument he'd just had with his girlfriend. He'd been detained by police who were looking for a robbery suspect, the only feature they shared being they were both young Black men. His girlfriend thought he was making a big deal over nothing, and my friend, who'd immersed himself in white liberal circles just as I had, needed to know that someone else saw things his way. I did, but again couldn't explain why. And neither could he.  So we sat confused together. After all, if we're “color-blind,” then the only racism we can recognize is overt racial bigotry. We can't point to social patterns based on race since we're not supposed to be looking for them.  (And if you do point to them, you get accused of being racist.)

Yet even if we're not looking for patterns, our minds notice them anyway, IF we directly experience them.

In my sheltered world, the incidents of overt racial bigotry were few and far between, but I (and folks like me) were continually hurt nonetheless, not by bigots but by our friends. People who espouse liberal values and sincerely try to treat all people the same. I finally had to admit that the color-blind approach, frankly, sucks. Instead of solving racism, it perpetuates it, because it takes away the ability recognize diversity, and privilege.

The theme for this month is reconciliation, and in honor of Dr. King, the focus this week is on racial reconciliation. Usually, when we speak of reconciliation, we think of a positive outcome. But as I thought and thought about what I might share with y'all today, I could think of no happy ending with respect to race. Of course there has been progress, and I believe as Rev. King did that our universe ultimately bends towards justice. But with prisons and morgues full of black and brown bodies put there by our “justice” system, the only racial reconciliation that I can genuinely speak to is internal, between me and race itself. I once was blind but now I see.

Penniless, not Destitute or Indigent

Being penniless has not been as bad as the nightmare my imagination conjured. I choose the word penniless over words like destitute, or indigent, because those two words also mean without resources. For years I volunteered and donated to the local homeless shelter knowing, "There but for the Grace of God."

The Affordable Care Act aka "Obamacare" is a godsend. This year it made me eligible for Medi-Cal, which had been limited to Social Security recipients, and children. Upon becoming eligible for Medi-Cal, Kaiser Permanente re-enrolled me  on the smallest of technicalities. I had Kaiser the first three weeks of 2012, which were my last three weeks of seminary. This enabled me to go to the doctor today to get prescriptions refilled, and while I was there, a flu shot. No charge. On the county insurance for the indigent, my prescriptions were no cost, but it took getting a lawyer to go after the homeowners insurance of where I fell to get the necessary care for my back and neck. Prior to the last year of seminary, the cost of COBRA plus medication was astronomical.

Although I loathe asking for help, my circumstances have forced me to ask, learn, and be subject to the capriciousness of public assistance. My second year of CalFresh, food stamps in the old parlance, started without interruption in spite of my turning in the wrong paperwork. The worker and I went back and forth until we realized that we were talking about two different packets. Food stamps are great, except any goods that are not food, are not eligible. Soap, shampoo, toilet paper, laundry detergent, pet food, and any other non-food items in the store are ineligible.

My post earlier this spring, touched on all of this. I overcame my shame and applied for cash aid this time last year. Through a clerical error, it was taken away early this year. I neglected to follow up that post, which detailed some of the trouble. The aid was reinstated in April. That lasted until the end of June. In July, a representative from another program that I had been  limbo for told me an answer would take two months. I was expecting an answer in September. I preached a few times for small stipends during the summer. Knowing the cash aid would have been stopped for earning the stipends anyway, I let it go. Either were to have held me through August, which they did.

September came and went. So, too, October. Mid-November brought the realization that taking the other program at its word, even with diligent follow-up, was not in my best interest. I returned to the county office to reapply for cash aid, only to learn that the reason it ended in June was another clerical error.  The past few months have been exceedingly difficult. If not for the graciousness of the woman who has allowed me to stay, things would be  much, much worse. Now that autumn, or winter, has finally arrived I am even more grateful.

In the days leading up to  Thanksgiving, I was struggling. I spent too much early in the month on groceries; I was going into yet another holiday season without enough to buy raw materials to make gifts in time; Here was another season of being unable to donate; Here was one more season of not supporting my faith community to which I'm still unable to drive. Nonetheless, Thanksgiving did remind to be grateful, despite indigenous history. My list of complaints is a list of first world problems. I have healthcare that includes mental health, a place to sleep, bathe, and keep my laundry clean and inside. I regularly have access to a car. I have food and clean water, not only to eat and drink, but a place to keep and prepare the food. I have good weather the vast majority of the time. I had a few weeks in July in which I did not worry about the future. I have a dog who thinks it's the best day ever every single time she returns from her walk to find me home. I have a neighbor who walks her daily and keeps her when I'm not there so that the dog does not have to be kenneled too much.

I have faith communities that regularly invite and/or welcome me to their midst: the Pasadena Mennonites, a supper club, a new Buddhist sangha, Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, the newly interfaith Peace and Justice Academy. I am grateful for dear friends and my parents who have been generous and encouraging. Kimberly, too. Recently, I posted someone's meme with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It was the normal pyramid, but underneath, two new layers were added with a digital pen. The first meme added wi-fi. The humor was that it was under the very basic needs, implying that it was most important, the foundation. Next, someone added second layer below wi-fi. Bicycle became the foundation for the most basic need to be met. Therefore, in addition to the things I am grateful for listed above, I still have a bicycle and access to wi-fi. Life is, dare I say it, good.

It seems too much to ask, then, to stop being in limbo so that I can begin to move forward. I am going to house-sit over the holidays, but it is time to find another place to live. In the meantime, I take pleasure in the little things and stay focused and present each day. Most of all, I am not alone. I do have resources. My imagination conjured much worse. I am reminded of another quote I read often. "The misfortunes hardest to bear are those which never happen." -James Russell Lowell

UUism and Social Justice: Don't Make Me Choose

This morning UU World announced that the sale of mineral rights, donated over two decades ago by a generous Texas couple, will net the UUA close to a million dollars, and that money will allow the UUA to close its large budget deficit without borrowing from the Endowment.  I read the news with ambivalence. On the one hand, there is the generosity of the Carpenters, which shines through in the article.  And it is a great relief to not have to dip into the Endowment.  Otoh, selling mineral rights that allow companies to drill for oil means more carbon that is taken out of the ground and burned into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. Moreover, such drilling always comes with other ecological damage - pollution of the land and water.  These things directly contradict our values and numerous social witness statements that we've passed in recent years about moving away from the use of fossil fuels, combatting global warming/climate change, and care for the interdependent web of all existence.  The UUA supported civil disobedience at the White House to stop approval of the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011 and more recently supported the People's Climate March in NYC this past Septemeber.  What's most puzzling is that this obvious conflict wasn't even mentioned in the article.

(Perhaps it should not be surprising since previous decisions such as the sale of 25 Beacon and the redesign of the UUA logo were announced similarly - with onesided positivity and no acknowledgement that some folks might find the decision troubling.)

I could go further into how the sale of mineral rights allowing oil companies to drill is so problematic and at odds with our stated values, and perhaps if necessary I will at a later time, but the thing that motivated me to write today is this: Every time the UUA does something controversial the same general pattern of conversation occurs.  Party A points out that that there is something wrong with the action.  Party B criticizes party A for being critical, suggesting that party A is (pick one or all of the following) judgemental, ungrateful, lacking joy, unwelcoming, making a mountain out of a molehill, and "no wonder we can't grow." 

It doesn't matter what the issue is, whether it's a moral/justice issue or something to do with internal organization, this pattern happens within our UU community.  And I've already seen this pattern emerge within the conversation/comments following the UU World post. 

There is some truth to the claim that we make mountains out of molehills.  For example, the mini firestorms that erupted when someone created "Standing on the Side of Love" stoles and clergy shirts.  And I totally recognize that it's hurtful to start one's objections off by attacking fellow UUs who are trying to do something for the community, no matter how vehemently we may disagree with their actions.  Assumption of good faith needs to be the foundation of our conversations with each other.  There are ways to point out how an action is problematic while still honoring the inherent worth of all parties involved, and as people in religious community we should always remember that.

That said, it is irksome to read statements suggesting that any kind of disagreement is unwelcome and/or that such criticisms are the reason why our congregations are lacking joy and no one wants to join us.  The implication being that we should never offer critique, no matter how tactfully stated, no matter how important the issue, if we want Unitarian Universalsim to be vibrant and growing, even if the criticism is that we are violating our stated values, as is the case here.  First of all, let me say that I don't believe that's true - I don't believe we have to choose between critique and healthy, happy congregations.  That is a false choice.  Secondly, even if it were true (which it's not) that one has to choose between pointing out how an action does not align with our values and growing Unitarian Universalism, I will choose the values.  Every time.  If we don't live by our values, then I don't care if we don't grow.

That last sentence should not even be considered a controversial statement.  It really shouldn't. So finally the reason for this post: Growth for its own sake is not inherently good.  Unitarian Universalism for its own sake is not inherently good.  These things are good only in so far as they promote the greater good, for humankind, for our sibling sentient beings, for our Mother Earth. 

There are so many admonitions within Buddhist traditions about confusing the vehicle for the destination.  Zen warns us to not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.  The Buddha warned us not to hold tightly to rafts that might have safely carried us across waters but then become burdensome to carry on dry land.  The point is that we need to always be aware of what the true goal is and what are just vehicles that can carry us to that goal.  For me, the goal is the Beloved Community, or as my family's Buddhist tradition would put it, the Pure Land.  The Land where systemic oppression does not exist, exploitation of the Earth and her children (both human and otherwise) does not exist, where beings are unencumbered by the suffering caused by injustice and thus can reach their fullest potentials, whatever those potentials might be.  That is the goal (for me).  Unitarian Universalism is a vehicle to help us reach that goal.  A worthy vehicle that I love, filled with people whom I love, but still just a vehicle.  (The Buddha said the same thing of Buddhism, urging us to even let go of his teachings if they get in the way.)  I believe that Unitarian Universalism can help us reach the Pure Land, which is why I am a UU. And despite occassional missteps, I have faith that we will eventually always do the right thing.  But if it comes down to having to choose between UUism and a just, sustainable world where our Earth and her inhabitants are not exploited for profit, then yes, I choose the latter.  I would hope that after careful consideration, no UU would ever really demand such a choice.

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