Populist Rage

It’s good to be part of a trend. My family has been countercultural for so long that it’s a nice change. We have shopped exclusively at thrift stores for years and squinted to watch a tiny old TV…then just when shopping was flatly declared a thing of the past, we finally sprang for the giant flatscreen we’d been saving up for, as well as that MacBook. Always against the grain.

But now, finally, a trend emerges which I am solidly part of. Populist Rage. I haven’t been following the media in order to learn more about this, so I don’t know what the rest of the populist is most enraged about, but I’m there. I’m enraged.

Since I haven’t followed the actual news stories on right-wing or mainstream media outlets, I’m not sure if I actually qualify as populist. I know that often in right wing radio I am part of the liberal elite, the non-real America, so pardon me if I’m not sure if my rage is real American rage right now. Certainly, the problems I have are the problems of a privileged person, a person with dollars and hours to lose without ending up on the streets as some people would. So maybe, once again, I’m against the grain.

I think of Agnes Angst, the punk rock character that Lili Tomlin brought to life in the 1980’s, who said, “No matter how much contempt I have for society, it is nothing compared to the contempt society has for me.” It’s hard to feel I can generate enough rage, populist or otherwise, to meet the forces that enrage me.

I’m not even particularly focused at Bernie Madoff, the greedy Wall Street bankers, or any of the other targets of rage du jour. I’m still processing rage that’s been building for decades!

Today, for instance, is April 8. It is also the first day I have woken up knowing that the phone service for which I have been paying BOTH Qwest and Comcast since February 15 finally, actually, works. That someone could call me on my primary phone line and reach me. People will no longer leave baffled messages on my cellphone or email saying, “That number you gave me just rings and rings.” Never mind that I will never know how many people gave up on trying to find me. Because, hey, Comcast has offered me $50 for my trouble.

Repeated calls to both companies have taken me dozens of hours—lunch hours, evening hours, work hours. My AT&T cellphone minutes were over last month for the first time ever—I haven’t studied the bill but I’d be willing to bet I know why.

But where would I turn to alleviate this anger? To another big company? I was a loyal Verizon customer for about seven years, paying my cellphone bills on time each month. When I finally changed providers, I had a heart to heart talk with the woman on the phone, telling her I was leaving for AT&T ONLY because I wanted an iPhone but I had really loved Verizon’s service. She commiserated, told me that she wanted an iPhone herself. I thought we were friends. Was I surprised to receive a $500 bill for terminating my service a week early—it turns out a minor change I had made, unbeknownst to me, had extended my contract with them! Wouldn’t you think my dear friend might have mentioned this to me as we chatted? Again, hours of phone calls throwing tantrums netted me splitting the difference with them—after all, they said, I should have asked. No doubt I should have.

But I’m not singling out Comcast or Verizon. It’s all of them. When I bought my daughter an iPhone for Christmas and went to renegotiate our AT&T family service contract, it turned out that I’d been overbilled by almost a thousand dollars last year! Luckily a guy was honest enough to point this out to me, since I had obviously not tracked that I was paying twice a month in an obscure way too complicated to explain. But after he copped to it, his boss clearly chewed him out, so that after he went to the back room to meet with her, he came back looking quite guarded and told me the maximum they could reimburse me was $250. After all, I should have noticed. No doubt I should have.

So, here’s my rage: It comes from hour after hour of listening to muzak and recorded voices that tell me how much Fill-In-The-Blank Corporation cares about my patronage when I know from firsthand experience that they could care less about me. One of my most desperate, helpless, moments in my ongoing fights with Comcast was when I heard myself say, “I’m going to post this on my facebook page. And I have LOTS of friends!”

I’ll tell you this, which all of my facebook friends and everyone else I’ve ever spoken to knows in their cells and bones: Corporations and their lack of willingness to take responsibility for good service are the source, not the solution, of our rage. No one will be able to tell people like me, who have lost lunch hours and credit ratings and thousands of dollars because of their irresponsibility that our hope for a better life lies in continued favoritism for corporations and privatization of government services. Because we talk to our friends on or off Facebook, and we know better.

– from the mind of the Rev. Meg Riley

President Obama’s Staff Asks for Our Help

Today, President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel (seen at right), and the Director of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Rev. Josh DuBois, stopped by the Washington Office to see how the UUA is supporting justice and progress in the United States and the World.

We showed the Emmanuel and DuBois our Actions of the Month on Environmental Justice and Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

They expressed interest in our work on BGLT equality. And they wanted to learn more about the Social Justice and Advocacy Trainings we offer. They were particularly pleased with the results of the Sexuality Education Advocacy Training (SEAT) we hosted last month.

The workshops we are offering at General Assembly on environmental justice, immigration, and direct democracy were particularly exciting for them.

Overall, DuBois and Emanuel were extremely pleased with the work of the UUA and said they would report back to the President about our office immediately. Both look forward to working with us more in the future.

Oh, and Happy April Fools Day!

Happy (Belated) Birthday Joseph Priestley!

Last Friday was the 176th birthday of Rev. Joseph Priestley. Rev. Priestley has been credited (sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly) as the man who discovered the implications of oxygen, invented soda water, founded modern day Unitarianism, tore apart the friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, was a seditious alien, and as Benjamin Franklin said, “an honest heretic.”

I just read an excellent new book about Rev. Priestly called, The Invention of Air, by Steven Johnson.

Below is a very good interview of Johnson on the Colbert Report last week.

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We have a lot to thank Joseph Priestly for. Not only did he set the basis for the faith we share, his isolation of oxygen from plants sparked the first major environmentalist movement of the modern western world.

His invention of soda water, allows for one my favorite vices–namely carbonated beverages.

His involvement in the American and French Revolutions through his political writings helped shape early American culture.

But in my book, what I really appreciate about Priestley is his willingness to share ideas. Johnson writes that Priestly was an unapologetic over-sharer. He had no problems with sharing his ideas, bouncing new thoughts off of friends, and publishing his extremely detailed notes of handmade instruments. In the enlightenment era he lived in, property rights were just starting to incorporate creative and intellectual products. Many of Priestley’s intellectual enemies profited directly from his own lack of intellectual discretion.

But in many ways, Priestley’s proclivity to sharing ideas and his vast and prolific publications led to the open source, creative commons, and DIY movements of today.

Just as Priestley would spend hours in London’s coffeeshops distributing and collecting ideas from his peers, we have seen people do the same today. Believing that intellectual freedom breeds innovation and advancement; makers, crafters, programmers, etc. have blown open the old paradigm of intellectual property rights through the Internet.

People like Lawrence Lesig have innovated the way we think about political lobbying through his Open Congress Initiative. Linus Torvalds started a movement to make computer operating systems built by users for uses through Linux. Movements like Maker Faire and unconferences allow many people to come around a theme but work unrestricted by schedules to be creative and open to new possibilities.

So happy birthday Rev. Priestley! We celebrate your life and mind! I lift my fizzy water to you while tinkering over my crafts and gadgets I share with my friends and peers.

Hello from Houston (International Convocation of UU Women)

Hello from Houston, where I have swapped my Minnesota boots for–no, not cowboy boots–sandals! As I talk to folks back home and learn they’ve been dumped with eight more inches of snow, each blooming rose here smells a little sweeter.

And nothing smells as sweet as a roomful of committed activists–okay, I will drop that metaphor right here. We are mostly UU, mostly women, mostly from the US, mostly white, mostly older, BUT around the edges of what is familiar, very interesting differences: Folks here from 20 countries, new voices in plenary with much to say and teach, women listening to one another carefully about the way that many of us have complex identities around international matters and commitments.

Here’s my favorite line from one of the women who worked tirelessly for years to bring this event together: “It all started in the back row of a UU choir practice.”

Here are some of the most interesting questions we have been asked, as we sit in plenary:
“How do we connect capital to community, and distribute it so that everyone can use it?” (from Rebecca Adamson, Cherokee Nation, from First Peoples Worldwide, who engages in amazing advocacy around indigenous people’s rights, including shareholder advocacy.
“How else would we have learned to speak if it wasn’t imitating the sounds of nature?” (Rebecca Adamson)
“What conditions bring out the worst in us? What brings out the best in us?” (Frances Moore Lappe)
“What if God is our baby to bear?” (Rebecca Parker, quoting Annie Dillard)
“What is the antidote to violence centered religion?” (Rebecca Parker)

I could go on and on, but I am late for morning worship and so will not. Look at www.uua.org for more info about what’s going on here; Eric Cherry is writing about it. He and Orelia Busch will also be blogging about it.

Rev. Meg Riley

25 Things–from the UUA Washington Office

Surely by now you’ve heard of the “25 Things” trend circulating on Facebook. We wrote one for the UUA Washington Office on our Advocacy & Witness Initiatives of the UUA Facebook profile, and decided to share it here for those of you aren’t on Facebook.

  1. Our acting director, Adam, begins emails to office staff with the phrase, “Dear Friends of Justice.”
  2. On Adam’s first day as Acting Director, Lisa, Grace, and Alex stayed up all night filling his office with balloons.
  3. The Washington Office for Advocacy is the largest UUA office located outside of Boston.
  4. We drink two pots of fair trade coffee every day!!!!!!!
  5. Over 4,500 people subscribe to our weekly Advocacy Newsletter, which keeps folks updated on federal legislation and other opportunities for action.
  6. After the shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church this past fall, we folded dozens of paper cranes and mailed them to the affected congregations.
  7. Some of the resources we’ve put out in the past year include Lisa’s Welcoming Our Neighbors: An Immigration Resource for Unitarian Universalists and Alex’s Unitarian Universalists and Islam: An Introduction to Interfaith Dialogue and Reading Group Guide.
  8. Our director, Rob Keithan, is currently doing a ministerial internship at First UU Church of Portland, but will return in June to be our fearless leader again. Rob’s other religion is beer.
  9. The Washington Office is located at 666 11th St. Sadly, the new building owners have decided to change our address to 1100 G Street, so we’ll no longer have the “Mark of the Beast” as a conversation piece.
  10. We have fourteen legislative objectives for the 111th Congress.
  11. To avoid implying rank of importance in lists, we alphabetize. That’s why we say “BGLT” instead of “GLBT” or “LGBT.”
  12. The Washington Office is part of the Advocacy & Witness (A&W) staff group, directed by Rev. Meg Riley. Meg’s other religion is gardening.
  13. We begin each A&W staff meeting with a quirky question to determine the order of the agenda. For example, what’s your favorite cartoon? Kat’s is the Power Puff Girls.
  14. Along with Congregational Advocacy & Witness, we maintain the Social Justice pages of the UUA website.
  15. We set aside time at every A&W staff meeting to celebrate the successes of the past week, from press conferences to lobby visits to a good tomato harvest in our gardens at home.
  16. Lisa bakes vegan muffins for her Interfaith Immigration Coalition meetings and they are delicious.
  17. Our annual Sexuality, Education, and Advocacy Training (SEAT) program is in its fifth year of bringing Unitarian Universalists, United Church of Christ members, and Reform Jews from across the country to lobby for comprehensive sexuality education.
  18. While Alex is a life-long Unitarian Universalist, he’s been deeply influenced by his Quaker college, Earlham, and is our resident “listener.” His other religion is burritos.
  19. Our staff blog Inspired Faith, Effective Action got the most traffic when we covered the Compassion Forum last fall and the Inauguration last month.
  20. The Washington Office uses 100% post-consumer recycled paper for our daily printing needs.
  21. The newest member of our office, Orelia, recently returned from two years of Peace Corps service in Burkina Faso.
  22. Every Wednesday morning, our office members meet for Theological Reflection (TR) with our office minister, Alida DeCoster, to help keep our work always grounded in our faith. On the Wednesday following the presidential election, we held TR outside the White House.
  23. Our current Action of the Month for February is Speak Up for BGLT Equality.
  24. All members of the Washington Office walk, bike or take public transportation to and from work.
  25. The Washington Office shares space with Taquiena Boston, the director of the UUA’s Identity-Based Ministries (IDBM), and will share a booth with IDBM at General Assembly. Come by and visit us!

Is Unitarian Universalism a Prophetic Church?

Any Facebook friends who’ve paid attention to my “status” will know that the recent Convocation on Theology of Justice and Ministries has been on my mind for the last two weeks. Last week, my status worried that I might not make it to a session due to winter ice. This week, I’ve spent more time pondering what came out of the discussions, such as wondering “whether Unitarian Universalism can preach to both the comfortable and the afflicted in the same congregation(s).” From talking with others who attended, I know that I am not alone in being deeply impacted by the experience. Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, the president of Starr King School for Ministry and a presenter at the Convocation, even mentions the Convocation (and our blog) in her e-newsletter to the seminary.

At a meeting of the First UU Church of Second Life last night, I asked fellow UUs there whether they consider Unitarian Universalism to be a “prophetic church.” This question, of course, raised other questions: what does it mean to be a prophetic church? After making clear that I did not mean a church that predicts the future, but rather a church that speaks the truth of justice to unjust power structures, we moved on to other questions. Have we been a prophetic church in the past? Are we now? Will we be in the future?

Due to logistics, the Convocation was not open to everyone, but these discussions are not meant to be limited to attendees. Essays were submitted, presentations were filmed, and a book and a DVD will come out of this for others to have the same chance for reflection. In addition, this will be taken up at the social justice track of UU University at General Assembly in Salt Lake City.

But in the mean time, I am asking our readers what I asked the UUs of Second Life: Is Unitarian Universalism a prophetic church? Do you want it to be, and if so in what way?

Join the UUA Washington Office’s Call for Senators to Pass Stimulus Package


Yesterday, the UUA Washington Office for Advocacy sent every Senator a letter calling for passage of the economic stimulus package and a document comparing spending components of the stimulus package with the ten largest military contracts from 2008.

Now is the time to tell your Senators to pass this important legislation. We are getting word that Senate offices are hearing far more from constituents who oppose the package. Read our document and then call both your Senators using the capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Tell them to act quickly and pass the economic stimulus plan!

Statement of Conscience to Be Sent to General Assembly

The UUA Bylaws requires a 25% quorum of congregations to send a Statement of Conscience–a comment on where the UU community stands on a social justice issue–to General Assembly–the annual business meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association. On Monday, February 2nd, the congregational poll asking whether or not the Statement on Peacemaking should be voted upon at GA closed. A record total of 81% of congregations participated in this poll! The resolution to send the Statement on Peacemaking to General Assembly overwhelmingly passed with over 40% of all congregations approving of the measure compared to the less than 1% who voted it down.

This is a huge success. In the past, less than 10% of congregations have participated in the congregational poll for a Statement of Conscience. Congregations decided how they would vote in the poll in a myriad of ways. Many congregations held congregational meetings to discuss and vote on the measure. Other congregations empowered their social justice teams or ministers to speak on behalf of the congregation.

Feedback was also collected by congregations and delivered to the Commission on Social Witness.
The Commission on Social Witness (the committee that is in charge of the UUA’s social justice statements) will take the results and feedback and edit the draft Statement of Conscience in early March. That draft will be sent to congregations in preparation for the vote at General Assembly.

Statements of Conscience require a 2/3 majority vote to be passed at General Assembly. With almost 40% of congregations supporting the discussion of peacemaking at GA of 2009, this makes the passage of a Statement of Conscience on Peacemaking a real possibility.

If your congregation is not participating in the peacemaking study action issue, it is not too late to begin. You can get more information at uua.org/peacemaking or by emailing peacemaking @ uua.org

Reflections on Pluralism and Theologies of Justice

Like Adam, I am lucky enough to be able to attend the Convocation on Theology of Justice and Ministry currently being held just outside of Baltimore. It is late Wednesday night, almost Thursday morning, but I am just posting about Tuesday because it’s taking me that long to digest the rich diet of ideas being offered.

We started the Convocation by devoting the first session to our UU theological and historical background in social justice – our religious grounding. We heard from three provocative panelists – Rebbecca Parker, Dan McKannan, and Jill Schwendemn. One theme that emerged was to recognize the rich history that we have coming out of two liberal Christian traditions – the Unitarians and the Universalists, and the importance to ritual to reaffirm our values. This being a UU convocation, those of us in the audience were asked to engage in these questions for ourselves – to think about how our own faith impacts our social justice work. I thought about how both the Christian tradition of the culture in which I grew up and the Buddhist tradition of my ancestral culture were equally important to me. The Judeo-Christian stories are so familiar and emotionally powerful. Yet at the same time, I do not want those traditions to be privileged over others such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The need to recognize the religious pluralism within our UU congregations mirrors the need to recognize and celebrate diversity in all its forms in our society.

The second session took up the problem of suffering, brokenness, and evil in the world, and our appropriate response. If the earlier session celebrated our UU and American heritage, then the evening’s panelists – Taquiena Boston, Victoria Safford, and Sharon Welch – all gave beautiful, painful testimonies as to where we have been unable to fully address the challenges that arise in an imperfect world. The room struggled with the concept of evil and wondered whether it was necessary to confess complicity by making the statement “I am evil.” Dr. Welch stressed a non-dualistic approach, recognizing and addressing acts of oppression while at the same time not labeling others as “evil” in a way that evokes animosity towards them and thus perpetuates the cycle. And Rev. Safford talked about how the choices that we make to no longer do harm are not one-time events. The choice must be made over and over again. What I understood from her was that we have been conditioned to be inclined to make the choices that we make. That doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for our choices but it recognizes that simply choosing once would not be enough.

As I listened to the conversations from both the afternoon and evening – discussions of “sin” and the means to “reconciliation” – I felt that it would be helpful if we UUs became conversant in other faith traditions – if we truly understood the concept of karma.

I do not mean the Westernized understanding of karma as a punishment and reward system. That comes from imposing the concepts of “good” and “evil” and a “divine judge” on an Eastern concept. Karma is not based on judgment. It is merely the consequences of one’s actions. Harmful acts have harmful consequences. Understanding this allows us to name and admit to oppressive acts without the debilitating judgment of “evil doer.” It tells us that the need to choose to end oppression is urgent for every moment that we allow it to continue (which is a choice), we generate more bad karma, the consequences of our actions (or inaction). What’s more karma reminds us that even when we choose the loving act, our work is not done. We will have to choose over and over again because the consequences of past harmful choices are still with us. It reminds us that there are no easy fixes to repair the world and build Beloved Community. But it also follows that if we act in love, steadily, that reconciliation and wholeness are inevitable.

A Reflection from the Convocation on Theology of Justice and Ministry

Brokenness, evil, hope, encounter, partnership, accountability, effectiveness, justice, change, worship, and repeat.

That is the mantra that is emerging for me over the course of my past two days surrounded by committed and prophetic Unitarian Universalists. Without naming it, I have spent my nearly three years with the UUA’s Washington Office learning and living this mantra. Much of my inspiration and guidance along this journey comes from the people present at this convocation.

I was asked at the convocation how I see my faith impacting my justice work. I quickly replied, ‘I don’t see a difference between the two.’ When asked to expand on that, I had trouble articulating what I meant. But after listening to so many panelists speak of such core components of our faith and our work for justice, I zeroed in on a clearer sense of my meaning. My faith is composed of community, reality, hope, belief and joyfully showing up to do the work. My justice work is also composed of community, reality, hope, belief and joyfully showing up to do the work. At their core, I don’t see a difference.

But there is a need – and a space – for our faith to have a more defined and complete theology of justice and ministry other than faith = justice. I have found that the space between and among our faith and justice work is filled with the elements of the mantra above. Each one of those elements has been spoken to at this convocation, albeit in often disjointed and incomplete ways. But, like a puzzle, as each moment passes the picture is becoming more clear.

At the end of the last panel discussion we were asked to come forward and share song or metaphor to illustrate our visions of prophecy and justice. Participant after participant went to the microphone and stood before all of us and the camera, and beautifully and articulately added more and more pieces to the emerging puzzle. I was literally on the edge of my seat.