About the Author
Kat Liu

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.

Hold On to This Feeling

The first time that I visited Washington, DC, it was as a tourist. As I stood in awe of monuments and grand buildings, shuffled past the Declaration of Independence, and tried to take in all that the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian had to offer, I could not imagine that anyone actually lived in this city. To me as a tourist, Washington was like a marble theme park where presidents and Congress members made history of one kind or another.

A couple of months after I had moved to the neighborhood of Columbia Heights, I caught sight of the far off Washington monument down Meridian Hill and remembered how I once could not fathom being what I had become, a DC resident. I, like other staff members of the UUA’s Washington Office for Advocacy, live in DC. We go to work, go home, buy groceries, go to church, go out… and know a city that is not evident from vacation visits and media coverage. The Washington that tourists see is disproportionately white with a smattering of foreigners, and an emphasis on lawyers and the military, lobbyists and diplomats. The DC that I know as a resident is a mixture of ethnicities – Euro Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans, and others – living in neighborhoods of varying degrees of integration… policemen and nurses, shop keeps and community organizers. There are neighborhoods of extreme poverty and despair in the same city with the marble facades and luxury hotels. I live in the capital of what is still the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth and yet our school system fails its children, some neighborhoods are plagued with violence, our residents do not have true Congressional representation, and everywhere the divides created by both racism and classism are evident.

I do not mean to give the impression that everyone walks around distrusting each other. Far from it. But just like other large cities in the U.S., there are barriers in our daily lives that are perhaps more visible in DC because of the stark contrasts. But this week we watched those barriers tumble down. On Sunday, I attended the “We Are One” concert with Taquiena Boston and her sister Mishan. We met in the neighborhood of Adams Morgan for brunch and then walked down to the National Mall, an over two mile walk. Along the way, we joined hundreds of others walking there as well. And we smiled at each other and shared stories. At the concert itself, the crowd was even more diverse than the performers on stage. The spirit of unity continued through the weekend, culminating when two million people – from all over the nation including DC, from all walks of life – converged again on the National Mall. When Barack Hussein Obama completed the oath of office, people everywhere hugged the nearest person they could find, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation…. We truly were one. This spirit of good will has continued long past that one moment. People greet each other with smiles at metro stops and chat while waiting in lines.

We live in an age where self-sufficiency is valued over cooperation. Where people intentionally avoid eye-contact when passing each other on busy city streets. Only twice in my life have I experienced the loving good will that is still embracing DC right now. The other time was in New York City after September 11th, 2001. While a lot of anger was unfairly directed at Muslims following the attack, there was also an encompassing feeling of intimcacy amongst usually gruff New Yorkers. People held doors open for each other, used their car horns less, and were generally more patient and kind. In our moment of collective grief, as a nation searched for meaning out of tragedy, we could have listened to the better angels of our nature, instead of the demons of fear and self-centeredness. People were ready to serve a higher purpose, if only we had had the leader to inspire us in that direction. Instead, our president at the time told us to “go shopping” and then took us into two wars.

The inauguration of President Obama cannot erase the harm we have done in the last seven years (and for hundreds of years before that). But at least now we have a chance. May we hold on to this feeling of unity in the trying times to come.

While You Weren’t Looking…

Back on April Fools Day, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it was waiving nearly three dozen laws and regulations in order to extend the wall it’s been building along our border with Mexico. The federal, state and local laws that were bypassed include legislation that protect the environment and our health, sacred Native American lands, and the rights of property owners. As a result, a remarkably broad coalition has formed of people who oppose this enormous waste of money and trampling of legal process, from the expected environmentalists to cattle ranchers to mayors of many border towns in the U.S. Despite that, the issue has gotten little attention in the rest of the country. To read more about the Border Wall and the environmental havoc it is wreaking, check out this blog post from NoTexasBorderWall.com.

I am thinking about the fact that the DHS announcement was made on April Fools Day because another announcement with wide-ranging environmental impacts was recently made on Election Day. While the nation’s attention was almost unanimously focused elsewhere, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that on Dec 19th, more than 50,000 acres of land within close proximity to three National Parks in Utah will be auctioned off for oil and gas drilling rights. The three national parks affected are Arches (home of the iconic and aptly named “Delicate Arch”), Canyonlands, and Dinosaur.

The top National Park Service official in Utah, Cordell Roy, says that his department wasn’t even notified before this announcement was made. Needless to say, the National Park Service objects to what some are calling a Bush administration “fire sale” for the oil and gas industries. While the BLM claims that this is simply business as usual and is surprised by the protest, conservation groups say that never before has the BLM “bunched drilling parcels on the fence lines of national parks.” And keep in mind that while the high price of gasoline may tempt us to consider putting part of our national heritage at risk, the Energy Information Administration says that Utah has only 2.5 percent of the country’s known natural gas reserves and less than 1 percent of its known oil reserves. Drilling around our national parks will not decrease oil prices.

Perhaps it was just a coincidence that this announcement was made on the afternoon of Election Day. But with the bustle of the winter holiday season getting into full swing, we might want to keep our eyes and ears open for additional holiday surprises.

I Voted Today, Did You?

Unlike most of my friends and colleagues, I am not out working in an election-related capacity today. I am not volunteering to work in the polls, as is Alex, to make sure that the process runs smoother. I’m a slacker depending on the volunteer time of others. I am not out getting out the vote, or last-minute canvassing, or other activities that would increase my voice by convincing like-minded people to vote. As such, my voice will be but one of an estimated 153 million possible (registered) voters today. All I did was walk over to my neighborhood polling place, wait in line, cast my ballot, and go to work. My part in this great democratic process is small.

But I left the polling place with a huge smile on my face that has not receded yet. First of all, the atmosphere at the polling place (my neighborhood junior high school) was festive. Colorful banners for different candidates decorated the chain link fence leading into the gymnasium from all sides. People, positioned well away from the actual polling place, handed out fliers and chatted with us as we walked up. Cardboard cutouts of candidates of choice, also well away from the polling place, stood on the sidewalk, as if to shake your hand. The impression that I got was that of a party.

Inside the actual polling place, courteous volunteers showed me which line to stand in and where to go next. Everyone was smiling. It was contagious.

As I stood in the booth – just me, my ballot and a number two pencil – the momentousness of the occasion hit me. I don’t mean that regardless of the outcome, this election will have made history. Of course there is that. I don’t mean that the choice between men who want to take this country in very different directions will determine our future. Yes, there is that too. But what I felt in the polling place was simply the awe of getting to make a choice.

Each one of us who is a citizen of this country (and not a felon in some states, but that’s for a different blog post) gets to make this choice. We get to participate in this sacred process of self-determination. On equal footing with each other. Standing in that booth, I felt empowered, and a part of something much bigger than myself.

I left the polling place with a huge smile on my face, and it hasn’t dimmed yet. And so I’m saying to you out there, “I voted today, did you?” I’m not going to lecture you on how it is your duty and responsibility (even though that’s true). I am telling you to get out there and vote, because it will make your day.

Van Jones’ Green Collar Economy and What You Can Do

Even if you were not at General Assembly in Ft. Lauderdale this past June, you have probably heard by now about the Ware Lecture. Environmental Justice advocate, Van Jones, electrified the auditorium when he outlined his vision for a new America, one where governance is based on optimism and compassion, instead of fear and competition.

(If you still haven’t seen Van’s talk yet, here it is.)

During the lecture, Mr. Jones briefly outlined his vision for how two of the greatest challenges facing us can be addressed at the same time – global climate change and economic injustice. Our current fossil fuel-based economy favors the wealthy few who control these limited resources at the expense of the middle and lower classes, resulting in more and more families slipping into poverty. Van proposes that instead of an economy based on death (fossil fuels), we switch to an economy based on life (solar, wind, and water). The same people who are currently employed mining coal and assembling SUVs can be retrained to make wind turbines and solar cells. In addition, more people can be hired and trained to weatherize low income homes, which would provide jobs (that cannot be exported) to the un- and under- employed while at the same time reducing the utility bills of those who can least afford to pay them, and reducing energy consumption.

It is a bold plan to revitalize the economy and save our earth at the same time. Largely in response to Van’s Ware lecture, the UUA has retooled our legislative objectives for the coming Congressional term, in order to make more explicit our commitment to not just addressing climate change, but our current unjust economic systems. Our legislative objectives with respect to environmental justice are:

  • Mandate a reduction of U.S. carbon gas emissions, as recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while relieving the burden of increased energy costs for lowincome households
  • Create millions of green jobs to transition the U.S. to a green economy and to lift people out of poverty

This week, Van Jones’ new book was released, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems, where he explains the ideas and proposals that he outlined in his Ware lecture in detail.

It’s not often that we will suggest buying something as an “action” to better the world. But strong initial sales of this book will cause the media to take notice, giving it more exposure and thus generating more sales and bringing “green economy” into the consciousness of more people. Strong sales will empower our ally, Green For All, and the entire environmental justice movement to advocate for a morally just economy – one that protects both nature and all humans. So we do urge you to buy the book (if you can afford it. Read it, and talk about it with friends, family, coworkers and neighbors. And while you’re at it, Urge Both Presidential Candidates to Support a Green Economy. We have the power to make “green economy” a household term, to change the way that people think about energy and who controls it.

Gulf Coast Anniversary and Update

Three years ago, on August 24th, a tropical depression became a storm in the Atlantic ocean. Meteorologists named it Katrina. It would become the sixth-strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. When it made landfall for a second time in Louisiana on August 29th (after pummeling Florida), it was the third-strongest recorded hurricane to reach the United States, and became one of our five deadliest. It laid waste to large swaths of both Louisiana and Mississippi.

Natural disasters cause wide-spread misery by definition, but the tragedy following hurricanes Katrina and Rita was largely human-caused, and revealed the devastating impact of systemic racism and classism. The levees protecting New Orleans had already been flagged as dangerously unsafe, yet these warnings were ignored. The flooding from broken levees caused more deaths than the storm itself.

Before Katrina’s arrival, evacuation plans relied on individuals to make their own way out of the hurricane’s path, ignoring the fact that many did not have access to private transportation. Fleets of buses lay unused, and then submerged. And in the hours and days following Katrina, our government failed to respond to the disaster. The lack of clean water, food, and shelter, and the violence that ensued from this chaos, claimed many more lives.

The media showed us images of white Americans and told us they were “searching for food.” The same media showed us images of black Americans doing the same thing and told us they were “looting.” We saw members of communities that were less hard hit forcibly preventing desperate people from entering their towns. For almost two days, American citizens were referred to as “refugees” in their own country. And in the analysis afterwards, it was starkly clear that the areas most affected corresponded to neighborhoods that were predominantly poor and of color.

Three years later, the misery wreaked by Katrina and Rita continues, as government bureaucracy and apathy slow the rebuilding process. Casinos and luxury hotels were rebuilt relatively quickly, but much of the old neighborhoods where the tourists seldom venture are still waiting. The Gulf Coast disaster is at least as much human-created as it was “natural.”

President William G. Sinkford’s 2005 response

UUA interview with Derrick Evans on the recovery

Make a contribution to the UU Gulf Coast Relief Fund.

And lastly, on this third anniversary we announce UU Gulf Coast Updates, a joint project of the Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists (GNOUU), the New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Center, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

Click here to view the inaugural issue.
And click here to subscribe to future updates.

Environmental Justice Legislation in the Senate

Last Thursday morning, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works passed two environmental justice bills, introduced by Congresswoman Hilda Solis (D-CA), that help protect minority and low-income communities from being disproportionately burdened by environmental problems. They are (quoted from Solis’ office):

S.642/H.R. 1103 – Environmental Justice Act of 2007 – This legislation requires the implementation of the Clinton Executive Order on environmental justice, and strengthens federal efforts to address environmental justice problems. It also requires agencies to implement environmental justice recommendations from the Government Accountability Office and EPA’s Inspector General. Senator Durbin is the lead author of the Senate bill – Rep. Solis authored the House version.

S.2549/H.R. 5132 – Environmental Justice Renewal Act – This legislation requires federal agencies to implement plans to identify and then reduce or eliminate environmental justice threats, and to expand their efforts to gather information about environmental justice problems and help develop solutions to such serious issues. Senator Clinton is the lead author of the Senate bill – Rep. Solis authored the House version.

Given that the current Congressional term ends in late September, it is unlikely that these bills will move further this term. However, the passing of these two bills out of committee makes it much more likely that they will be green-lighted if and when they are re-introduced next term.

We would like to thank Congresswoman Solis for being a champion on this important, under-recognized justice issue. And also to pass on the information, for those of you who live in the Los Angeles area, that Rep. Solis will be holding an event on August 21, 2008 from 10am – Noon at the East Los Angeles Skills Center titled “Greening Our Capitol, Greening Our Communities: Affordable, Effective Green Investments.” The briefing will give information on ways to incorporate effective, affordable green strategies.

After Lieberman-Warner

The first ever climate change legislation to be considered by Congress went down last week when the Senate failed to muster enough votes to end the filibuster. The news was bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s sad to see any climate bill rejected, even one as feckless as the Lieberman-Warner bill was. On the other hand, the bill did not set high enough emissions reduction standards, and gave away too much to the energy industries at the expense of low income families. Its demise clears the way for much better law.

So what do we do now?

While the Senate was wrestling with Lieberman-Warner, Representatives Waxman, Markey, and Inslee began circulating a “Dear Colleague” letter around the House outlining four principles for effective climate change legislation. That is, they outlined principles that any climate change bill should uphold in order to be considered effective and just. They are:

  • Reduce emissions to avoid dangerous global warming;
  • Transition America to a clean energy economy;
  • Recognize and minimize any economic impacts from global warming legislation; and
  • Aid communities and ecosystems vulnerable to harm from global warming

These are principles in keeping with our 2006 Statement of Conscience on Global Warming/Climate Change, principles that we can wholeheartedly endorse. And so we decided that the most positive, effective thing that we could do was to do just that – to endorse and get other Representatives to endorse these principles. Two weeks ago, we asked folks from the UU State Advocacy Networks to collaborate on this and they enthusiastically agreed, bringing their own considerable organizational skills to bear, and together we urged people to call their Reps. Last Friday, even as Lieberman-Warner fizzled in the Senate, I created an online action campaign that allows people to fill in their name and address and automatically send emails to their Representative, urging them to sign onto the letter. I sent it out through our newslist Advocacy News Friday afternoon and by Monday morning over 200 UUs had taken action. By Tuesday afternoon, the number was over 250.

All I can say is that I am awed by my fellow Unitarian Universalists. From the passing of the 2006 SOC to the commitment shown by the State Advocacy Networks, to the awesome response of individual UUs to this action campaign, you guys demonstrate over and over again how much UUs care about global climate change. And I think we’re having an effect. When we started this effort two weeks ago the number of signatories to the Dear Colleague letter was 63. It’s now 83. That’s not to say that we can claim all the credit – other fine people and organizations are working on this with us – but it shows that together we can make a difference.

And so let’s work a little harder even, and more strategically. As Congress winds down in preparation for the Fall election and then a new session, it is even more important now to get as many Representatives as we can to sign the Waxman, Markey, and Inslee Climate Change Principles letter. It establishes the standards by which future climate change legislation is to be measured. Let’s have our Representatives on record supporting effective and just legislation.

Currently, 83 Representatives have signed the letter. We can easily make it an even 100. And if we try a little harder, we can make it 150. Please take a look at the list of signatories. If your Representative is on the list, call or email to THANK them for taking a principled stand on climate change. If your Representative is not on the list, call or email to let them know about the letter and how important it is to you that they sign on. The Capitol Switchboard can be reached at 202.224.3121. Click here to find your Representative and their contact information. Or use the online action campaign to urge your Representative to support principles for effective climate change legislation.

March for Women’s Lives Remembered

Four years ago, when I was still relatively new to DC and All Souls Church Unitarian, an amazing thing happened. UUs from all over the country converged on Washington DC to participate in the March for Women’s Lives, a demonstration in support of women’s rights. I mean literally – almost every state was represented. Many important events have happened in DC and at All Souls since then, but still nothing like that. After a Sunday worship service with Dr. Rebecca Parker giving the sermon, we spilled out on to the streets and made our way to the National Mall to join other demonstrators. Estimates vary but anywhere between 800,000 and 1.15 million people participated. I can’t count that high. All I know is that I have been in many protests in my life but had never experienced anything like that peaceful, joyous, yet determined sea of humanity. A multitude of women, men, and children all together.

The other thing that I remember quite vividly about that march is that it was the first time I had ever protested as an identifiable part of a faith tradition. I had been a UU. I had gone to protests. I had never protested as a UU, as a person of faith. And it was extremely empowering.

And the woman who made it all possible was Kierstin Homblette.

Kierstin was the Legislative Assistant for Women’s Issues/Clara Barton Memorial Intern for the Washington Office at the time of the march. Much of her time was spent helping to plan and organize for this huge event. She is now finishing a tour in the Peace Corps in Senegal. When I asked her for her reflections on that day, she had this to offer:

It was so much more than a gathering of people in support of a cause. The March for Women’s Lives was something different for each of us. For me, the March and the months of planning that led up to it were an education in the power that I possess as a liberal person of faith. Organizing thousands of Unitarian Universalists to travel to Washington DC and worship and march together was the most difficult and time consuming part of my time at the UUA Washington Office. But the feeling of marching, singing, and witnessing with my fellow UUs on the Mall that day was also the most rewarding and fulfilling moment of my two years there.

By marching that day, we as Unitarian Universalists witnessed for what we believe and for what makes up the core of who we are. We didn’t just talk about it, or write about it, or even sing about it. We got out there and said it with our presence, with our bodies and feet and loud voices. And I marched next to my mother, who traveled all the way from Florida to raise her own voice with mine. Four years later, this remains a seminal moment for me – a turning point in my faith and in my confidence in the importance of our collective voice in the public discourse.

Earth Day Congregations

Hope you had a Happy Earth Day.

About a month ago we sent out an Earth Day “e-packet”, asking congregations to devote this past Sunday to eco-conscious worship and activities, including a letter writing campaign to support effective climate change legislation. By “we” I mean a consortium of UU groups – the UUA’s Washington Office for Advocacy and the office of Congregational Advocacy and Witness, the UUMFE, the UUSC, and the State Advocacy Network and UU Legislative Ministries. We pooled our resources and sent them to all our lists. It was the first time we’d ever done anything that coordinated.

I got several emails from UU congregations about their Earth (Sun)Day activities, and thought I’d share what some of your fellow UUs are doing:

In all, UUs from ten congregations took the time to write. They are:

The UU Fellowship of Fredericksburg is planning their new Fellowship Hall with green practices in mind.

Starr King UU Fellowship in Plymouth is promoting vermicomposting.

At First Parish UU, their choir sang the song “Trash” from Sesame Street. I love that song!

For Pathways Church, it was the *first* letter writing campaign for this young congregation. Congratulations and thanks!

All Souls in Greenfield did A LOT of outreach to surrounding congregations and got some media coverage.

UU Community Church of Santa Monica happens to be represented by Senator Boxer and Representative Waxman. They are the sponsors of the climate change bill that the UUA is supporting. So the church sent their letters plus kids drawings to both of them.

Speaking of kids, Charlotte, First Parish Cohasset, Santa Monica all had intergenerational programming, which was something we encouraged. Fantastic!

And last but not least, Peter Bowden from UU Planet wrote to say that UUPlanet.tv participated by featuring videos related to global warming, climate change, green living, etc.

Thanks to all who wrote and the many more who didn’t, who participated in congregational Earth Day activities this year.