Monday, December 12, 2016

Season of Darkness, Season of Hope

presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto on December 11, 2016

Chalice Lighting

At times our light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us. -- Albert Schweitzer

Centering Words

You may not always have a comfortable life, and you will not always be able to solve all of the world's problems at once. But don't ever underestimate the importance you can have, because history has shown us that courage can be contagious, and hope can take on a life of its own. -- Michelle Obama


Most of the time, some ceiling or roof blocks my view of the sky: in my apartment, my car, in stores, offices, churches, and just about anywhere else I go. Even when I’m outside, I don’t always remember to look up. Occasionally I check what the weather is doing or how much daylight is left. I might admire a beautiful sunset, or the Moon, or the stars on a particularly clear night. But I look at them the way I look at paintings in a museum. I contemplate them for a while and then I move on.

So while I am well acquainted with the sky, I don’t live with it the way my father did when he was farming, and certainly not the way ancient peoples did. Not many of us do anymore. And so it can be hard for us to grasp what the Winter Solstice must have meant centuries or millennia ago, when our culture’s mythic intuition was forming.

Our calendars tell us that the Solstice is about a week away, and of course we notice that days are shorter this time of year. But ancient peoples who lived with the sky as a constant companion would have seen much more than that. Even children must have noticed that the path the Sun takes across the sky was dropping ominously towards the horizon. And every child, at some time or another, must have asked the obvious question: "Is it going to keep dropping, until someday the Sun won’t bother to come up at all? What will happen to us if the Sun never comes back?"

Today, that question sounds even more childish, because are educated: We know about the solar system and the Earth’s tilted axis. We understand that the Sun’s shorter path across the sky does not mean that it is getting weaker or lazier. In the Southern Hemisphere, we know, days are bright and long now, and the tropics are as hot as ever. In short, the Sun is doing fine, however it might look from our angle. The Earth is in its usual orbit, and everything is right on schedule. The fear that the Winter Solstice might fail this year never really crosses our minds.

Millennia ago, it probably did. If you were that questioning child, no doubt your elders would reassure you: “The Sun always turns around about now. Wait a week or two, and you’ll see for yourself.”

But I wonder just how reassuring that was. I doubt it communicated the clockwork certainty we feel today. Probably it sounded like those somewhat less convincing reassurances we all get from time to time, like: “That fault line is stable.” or “People with your credentials always get good jobs.” or “America would never elect someone like that.” — reassurances that may have been true in living memory, but which come with no guarantees. “Maybe it has always been that way,” you think, “but is it going to be that way this time?”

So I imagine that ancient peoples of all ages watched the sky this time of year with a certain anxiety, believing, but not completely certain, that the age-old pattern would hold, and a cosmic catastrophe would be averted once again.

But of course, the pattern did always hold. Every year, the Sun’s arc across the sky stopped sinking and began to rise, the days got longer, and Spring eventually came. But no matter how many times you lived through it, I imagine that the Solstice never really lost its miraculous quality, because the mechanism behind it remained invisible.

And so it became that rarest of events: a predictable, regularly occurring miracle. In time, the Solstice came to represent something a little more abstract than just the promise of Spring: It was evidence that miracles were still happening. It symbolized the lesson that you should never lose hope, because situations that just seem to get worse and worse every day can turn around, even if you don’t see exactly what is going to turn them.

Over time, symbols and stories and holidays of hope clustered around this time of year: The Temple lights that should burn out, don’t. The Golden Child who will change all of our lives — whether it is the hero Mithras or the savior Jesus — is born. Even our secular Christmas mythology reflects this hope that things can turn around: Scrooge gets back his humanity. The Grinch’s heart grows three sizes. George Bailey discovers he actually is living a wonderful life.

And every year, we are encouraged to bring that hope into our own lives: Maybe an old friendship can be rekindled. Maybe that ancient family quarrel can be patched up. Whatever part of your life seems stuck or broken, you should give it one more try, because this is a time when things might turn around, even if you don’t necessarily see how. This season of darkness is also a magical season, a season of hope.

But what can Unitarian Universalists do with all that?

Hope is fine, I guess, but we don’t put much stock in magic, or in things that are supposed to turn around for no particular reason. We want to see the mechanisms.

We are also skeptical of saviors. When I was growing up Lutheran, we called this season Advent, and we sang:

O come, O come, Emanuel.
And rescue captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

That tune is still in our UU hymnal, but we changed the words. Because we are a proud people, a people of action, and we don’t plead helplessly for someone to come save us, not even God.

A lot of us don’t believe in God, and even those of us who do probably don’t believe in the kind of God who steps into history and fixes things that humans have screwed up. At most, we might believe in the upward tilt of Progress, or in the Theodore Parker line that Martin Luther King liked to quote: “The arc of the moral Universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Many of us don’t even believe that much. The universe simply does what it does, and whether it ultimately bends towards Heaven or Hell is beyond our knowing. Our so-called “progress” may lead to annihilation rather than paradise. Rather than grant us freedom, it may enable a tyranny more all-encompassing than even George Orwell could have imagined. Rather than evolve into an interconnected global village, the world may fragment into echo chambers that are increasingly suspicious of one another.

Instead of adventure and innocent fun, the literature of our young people is full of dystopian wastelands and zombie apocalypses and heroes who hope for little more than to survive with a few of their friends. And who can blame the young for dwelling on such dark scenarios? Aren’t they just bringing into popular culture the private fears their elders are reluctant to discuss?

So we can see the darkness, but where is this hope we are supposed to celebrate?

In order to present that hope to Unitarian Universalists well trained in doubt and skepticism, I’m going to need to take advantage of something else we do well: appreciate subtle distinctions. UUs can split hairs like nobody else, and I’m going to split a really important one right now.

So far I’ve been using the word hope interchangeably with the belief that things will get better. But those two notions aren’t the same at all. Believing that things will improve isn’t hope, it’s optimism. The opposite of optimism is pessimism, the belief that things will get worse. But the opposite of hope is something far more devastating than pessimism, it’s despair. To be in despair is to believe that it’s useless to try, because your actions don’t matter. Nothing can be done.

So here’s the hair splitting: Optimism and pessimism are beliefs about the future. Hope and despair are attitudes towards the present.

Pessimism is going to the plate in the ninth inning when your team is behind, assessing the situation, and concluding that you’re probably going to lose. Despair, on the other hand, would tell you not to bother taking your turn at bat, or if you do step into the batter’s box, to let the pitches go by without swinging, because what’s the point? What difference could it possibly make?

Hope is the opposite of that. Hope is that feeling deep within you that you are alive, and that in this particular time and place, the only thing you need to concern yourself with is what you do next. Hope means refusing to prejudge the situation, it means doing whatever you can think to do and then whatever happens will happen.

Optimism and pessimism both claim to know something, but hope thrives on the unknown. It focuses on those parts of the future that remain undetermined, and it says, “Let me see what I can do.”

Once you appreciate that distinction, I think you’ll agree that while some UUs are optimists and some are pessimists, we are, at our core, a hopeful people. We don’t claim to know the future. We throw ourselves into the unknown and we act, because we have a deep, abiding faith that actions matter.

People sometimes ask me, as they probably ask you, why Unitarian Universalists bother to form congregations at all. Why do we set our alarms on Sunday mornings, make ourselves presentable, and show up? After all, if you’re going to make up your own mind about the Big Questions and follow your own conscience, can’t you do that just as well at home? No UU Hell is waiting for the unchurched. No authority is going to condemn you if you sleep in. So why bother?

I suspect that these last few weeks, you’ve known exactly why you bother. We are now in a season of darkness in more ways than one. The values Unitarian Universalists cherish are challenged today in a way they have not been in my lifetime. We are told from the highest levels to fear the stranger, and blame our misfortunes on those least able to defend themselves: on immigrants and refugees and the poor. Those who are different are presented to us as threats to our well-being and our very way of life. Science, we are told, is just another bias, and compassion is weakness. Those we might previously have seen as victims are in fact just losers, people unworthy of our concern.

In the middle of this immense darkness, if all you can see is the small candle of goodwill that you carry yourself, then you may well fall into despair. Because no matter what you do or how hard you try, you cannot light the world. If you worry that your candle might really be the only one left, then you might do well to hide it, for fear of those who would snuff it out.

Or you could bring it here.

On the Sunday after the election, I was speaking in the place where I grew up, a small Midwestern town in a rural county that voted three to one for Trump. The Unitarian church there is small, but we drew a good crowd that day.

I don’t think people came to church that morning because they wanted to be jollied back into optimism. We gathered together for reassurance, but not the kind that says everything is going to be OK. (A lot of things are not going to be OK in the coming years. I think we all know that.) No, the reassurance we were looking for that morning, that I think many of us are still looking for, is to be in the presence of people who are not surrendering to despair.

I led the congregation in a responsive reading of the UU Principles, just so we could hear each other and hear ourselves say out loud what we stand for: the worth of all people; justice, equity, and compassion; acceptance of one another; the search for truth; democracy; world community; the interdependent web.

We’re not ready to give those things up, or to hibernate for a few years and let them take care of themselves. We don’t all have a plan yet. We don’t know exactly what we’re going to do. Most of us are still casting about, trying to figure out what we can do, what roles we can play, where we might make some kind of difference. But UUs across the country are determined to do something, because we are a people who believe that our actions matter. We are a religion of hope.

We are also a religion of faith. Not necessarily faith in some perfect world after death. Not necessarily faith in an all-powerful God who makes our stories come out right. Not even faith that some great leader will ride in with the cavalry to save us in our hour of need. But we do have faith that the potential for human goodness is far more widespread than it often appears. That flame you feel inside yourself, that desire to live in a more just and compassionate world, that willingness to make an effort and take some chances to help bring that world about — it also burns inside other people, including many you would never suspect. An old-time Universalist like Hosea Ballou would tell you that if you could look deeply enough, you would see that flame burning somewhere inside everyone.

You can never predict when or how it will shine through. Several years ago, I was worried about my wife, who was facing a life-threatening cancer she eventually recovered from, and so I did not notice that I had picked up a virus myself. It hit me suddenly one afternoon in our local mall, and I dragged myself to Food Court to sit down and try to recover enough energy to drive home. But instead I just felt worse and worse. Looking around, I saw only strangers, no one I could ask for help. So I decided to make a run for the bathroom, hoping to be sick there rather than in front of everyone.

But when I stood up, I keeled over, and woke up a minute or two later on the floor with people all around me. The man at the next table had caught me as I fell, and an impromptu emergency response team had formed around me. Mall security had been notified, 911 had already been called, and an ambulance was on its way.

When I had looked around at all those strangers, I had not seen that level of caring, that willingness to get involved and help. But it was there.

That is a story of personal caring, but history is also full of moments when caring for the public good has burst forth, seemingly from nowhere: when crowds have faced down armies, when workers have stood together in unions, when citizens have marched together in support of civil rights or against war, and very recently when Native Americans and their allies from across the country — including a sizable contingent of UU ministers — came together at Standing Rock.

Hope thrives on the unknown, and we do not know what depths of goodness and courage might be hidden inside the American people. During this past year, it has been hidden pretty well sometimes. Sometimes I have felt that I didn’t know this country at all. But it is the faith of a Universalist that human goodness does not die just because it is hidden, any more than the Sun dies when it sinks behind the horizon.

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that our own goodness is hidden sometimes. We haven’t always done what we could have done. We haven’t always spoken up when we should have. In hindsight, I suspect, most of us can look back at times when we were on the wrong side of some important issue. (I know I can.) But the goodness inside us didn’t die in those moments, it was just obscured by ignorance, or by fear, or maybe just by exhaustion.

It is the faith of Universalist to give others the same benefit of the doubt that we need for ourselves. And it is the faith of a Universalist to believe, as Michelle Obama said, that actions of courage, of generosity, and of inspiration are contagious.

The challenge of a season of darkness is to start such contagions and to spread them. If you step forward, you do not know who will follow you. Maybe it will be people you never would have expected.

In terms of optimism, I can offer you only the vaguest reassurance. Human history shows that things do not go on getting worse forever. Eventually they turn, and the moments when they turn are hardly ever obvious at the time. Even decades later, historians are usually still arguing about them. Right now, we could be closer to a turning point than anyone suspects, or it could still be a long way off. I don’t know.

One thing I can guarantee you: In a season of darkness, whatever you can think to do will seem totally inadequate to the immensity of the situation. What does it matter if I wear a safety pin? Or correct that fake news story my friend posted to Facebook? Or put a Black Lives Matter sticker on my car? Or sit next to that kid who’s being bullied? Or call that congressman? Or go to that demonstration? Or work for that candidate? Or run for that local office? How is that going to turn the world around?

And the answer is: We don’t know. By itself, nothing you do will turn things around. You cannot light the world.

But we also do not know how much hidden goodness is out there, and how it might reveal itself. If you do that thing that it occurs to you to do, you do not know who will see it and be inspired by it, or what you yourself might learn from it, or what either of you might go on to do next.

Here, in a time of darkness, we choose to act, but we do not know what will come from that action. We cannot know. And so, we hope.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Post-Election Meditation

When I led the service at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois on the Sunday after the election, I read this meditation (after apologizing to anybody who was feeling happy that morning).

When something bad and unexpected happens, it hurts.

That pain is part of the mind’s normal functioning, its healthy process of keeping order. Those buzzing expectations of things that now are not going to happen need to be switched off and unplugged. Hopes that have become hopeless need to be boxed up and returned to storage. Through this process, space is made for new plans and new hopes and new expectations, even if we can't yet imagine what they’re going to be.

And while all this is happening, we hurt.

 It’s tempting not to let this process play out. It’s tempting to skip past the period of adjustment and jump straight into new action. It’s tempting to skip past the time of hurting and leap into anger at those we blame for our misfortune.

Sometimes it’s even tempting to turn that anger on ourselves, to goad ourselves into ever-deeper levels of guilt and recrimination: “If I had done this. If I hadn’t done that. Why did I let my hopes get so high? Shouldn't I have known better?”

And while we’re running in circles, and raging, and recriminating, that inner work remains undone.

So right now, let’s take a moment to sit with our pain and disappointment. Not goading it on, not telling it to go away, not trying to jump over it. That pain has work to do. Let that work be done.

Someday, maybe sooner than you think there will be a time for new plans, a time for new action, and even a time for new hopes. But all that will happen much better, after the debris has been cleared away.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Church That Would Have You as a Member

Back in 2010, the New Humanism online magazine asked me if I’d write an article introducing Unitarian Universalism to Humanists. I sent them a text titled “Unitarian Universalism: A Church for Humanists?”, which they posted under the title “A Church that Would Have You as a Member”. 

So far so good. But recently it has been pointed out to me that the New Humanism web site no longer exists, and so links that used to point to my article now go to some page that’s trying to sell you something unrelated. I’ve googled lines out of my draft and haven’t gotten any hits, so I don’t think the article has moved somewhere else.

So I’m going to repost it here. I didn’t keep track of my agreement with New Humanism, so it’s possible I’m violating copyright by doing so. If so, and if that bothers whoever has a right to be bothered, they should just leave a comment. I’ll happily take this post down if you can point to somewhere else on the internet where the article can be found.

Bear in mind: What I have in my records is the article as I sent it to them, so it’s missing whatever edits they might have made, for better or worse. I fixed a mistake. (James Barrett died in 1994, not 2003.) Also, I’ve had to fix the links, which may not go to the original places anymore, but should go somewhere relevant. Anyway, here it is:

A Church That Would Have You as a Member

Unitarian Universalism has long had a unique relationship with Humanism. What other religious group would showcase an outspoken atheist at its national convention, as the UUs did when they invited Kurt Vonnegut to give prestigious annual Ware Lecture at the General Assembly of 1984? UU Humanists have their own national organization (HUUmanists) with their own journal (Religious Humanism). In a 1998 survey, nearly half of UUs identified themselves as Humanists. New Humanism's publisher Greg Epstein spoke at the 2008 General Assembly, and has been invited to speak again in 2010.

Unitarians were largely responsible for the first Humanist Manifesto, and in his 2002 book Making the Manifesto, former Unitarian Universalist Association President (and the AHA's Humanist of the Year for 2000) William Schulz claimed that there were more Humanists in UU churches than in the American Humanist Association. 

Few other religious organizations have so consistently stood with Humanists in those battles where traditional morality and human rights take opposite sides. The lead plaintiffs in the Massachusetts same-sex marriage case took their vows at the Boston headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association, with then-UUA President William Sinkford officiating. About a hundred UU ministers -- a significant fraction of the entire UU clergy -- marched with Martin Luther King in Selma in 1965, and the murder of one of them (James Reeb) provided the white martyr that President Johnson needed when he urged Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Another UU (James Barrett) was murdered in 1994 while trying to protect an abortionist from religious-right violence. Linus Pauling, the two-time Nobel laureate who led an international groundswell of scientists pushing for a nuclear test-ban treaty (and co-founded the International League of Humanists) was a UU.

UU General Assemblies have passed more than a dozen resolutions supporting the separation of church and state. People for the American Way founder Norman Lear was another Ware lecturer in 1994, and a Unitarian Universalist (Pete Stark) was the first congressman to announce in public that he did not believe in God. 

Small wonder, then, that when Humanists go looking for a like-minded community -- a place to raise a child in humanistic values, look for social-action allies, solemnize a wedding or funeral, or perhaps just be reminded once a week that American consumer culture is not the only alternative to God -- the local Unitarian Universalist church is a prime option. There are about a thousand UU churches around the country (far more than Ethical Culture societies or other Humanist-friendly groups), and you can find at least one in every state of the union.

But is the humanist-community problem really that simple? Should we all just go join UU churches? As a Unitarian Universalist myself -- I am, in fact, more comfortable identifying myself as a UU than as a Humanist -- I wish I could make that sweeping recommendation in good conscience. But while many Humanists are happy as UUs, many others are not, and every year some number of UU-Humanists stomp out the door in disgust. 

So would you be a contented parishioner or a stomper-out-the-door?


Probably the best way to get a handle on UUism is to understand where it comes from. Believe it or not, the story (or at least the Unitarian branch of the UU family tree) starts with the Puritans. When they came to the New World in the 1600s, the Puritans weren't any kind of Humanists or even particularly liberal Christians. But Puritan churches lacked two features that anchor religious institutions against the progressive forces of evolution: They didn't have a creed and they didn't have a hierarchy. 

Each local congregation was supposed to read the Bible for itself, and no external authority could force a congregation to read it any particular way. Puritans believed that an external authority was unnecessary, because the Holy Spirit would keep pulling congregations back to Christian truth. What happened instead was that many of those congregations drifted towards liberalism. 

The drift was gradual, but over the centuries the small changes added up. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, people like William Ellery Channing started interpreting the Bible according to reason rather than tradition, and noticed that some of the more unreasonable Christian doctrines, like the Trinity, were also un-Biblical. So they affirmed the unity rather than the trinity of God and became known as Unitarians.

By the middle of the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson was challenging the uniqueness of the Bible itself, which he saw as the record of one people's inspiration. People in other times and places (like us here and now) might hope for their own divine inspiration. And if that was the goal, why not look to Nature or Art rather than to scripture?

From there, each generation of Unitarians became a little more humanistic than the last, until by 1920 Unitarian minister Curtis Reese could announce to his colleagues (in public, no less) that God was "philosophically possible, scientifically unproved, and religiously unnecessary."

The fact that Cotton Mather was not rolling over in his grave was, in itself, powerful evidence against the Afterlife.

Reese-style Unitarian Humanism was controversial for about a generation, but by the time of the merger with the Universalists in 1961, it was the majority point of view in most UU churches. Since then things have drifted in a different direction, which we'll get to in a few paragraphs.


This unique history explains the otherwise bizarre combination of features you will find in a typical UU church. If you walk into a UU Sunday-morning service wearing earplugs, you might imagine you are in a Christian church. Families arrive together and children go to their classes. Adults stand up or sit down in unison. Sometimes they sing together or read something out of the hymnal together. There might be a choir and an organ. Candles might be lit. More often than not, a minister will stand up and give something that might be called a "talk" or an "address," but looks an awful lot like a sermon.

UUs might appear to be imitating the more popular Christian denominations, but they're not. Like the evolutionary product it is, UUism comes by all that stuff honestly through a common ancestor -- the same way that dolphins get their lungs.

No matter how naturally those Christian trappings arise, though, they provide the first test of whether you'll be happy as a UU: If they drive you crazy, independent of the the service's intellectual content, then your life as a UU will be difficult. Don't torture yourself.

But if you can tolerate the appearances -- I've grown to like them myself -- then take out your earplugs and listen. You'll hear a message that is not always capital-H Humanist, but is decidedly humanistic: People of goodwill need to look past their disagreements about metaphysics and start fixing the world -- where fixing means creating the conditions for human happiness and fulfillment here and now, not preparing our invisible souls for some higher happiness after death. The world's many scriptures are read for inspiration, not for authoritative pronouncements, so a UU discussion doesn't end when someone quotes the Bible. Prayer is a community meditation on human needs and desires, not a request for supernatural favors. Science's description of the physical world is accepted, and while UUs may at times be skeptical about whether technology is creating a Heaven or a Hell for us, they completely understand and sympathize with the scientist's desire to solve whatever earthly mysteries might be solvable. Unlike Bluebeard's castle, a UU universe has no locked rooms.


Before you say "sign me up," though, you need to consider the continuing drift of recent decades. There was a moment in the 1960s or 70s when Unitarian Universalism might have become an unofficial Church of Humanism. Humanism was clearly the dominant philosophy and all forms of traditional religion were in retreat. Many UUs felt that their centuries-long evolutionary journey was done now: They had shaken off the barnacles of orthodox Christianity and had arrived at Humanism.

Many still feel that way, but the community as a whole has gone in a different direction. Particularly among the ministry, there is a trend to view traditional religion not as an encrustation to be shaken off, but as a resource to be mined. The solid shore of Humanism is largely taken for granted, but from that shore many 21st-century UUs dive back into religion, to see what can be salvaged: community-building rituals, teaching stories, techniques of personal transformation, invocations of awe and wonder, and so on.

And so, religious words that once seemed to be on their way out -- worship, prayer, God, holy, sacred, salvation, divine, and many others -- are on the upswing again. If you tap on those words, if you ask what UUs are trying to get at by using them, chances are you'll hear an explanation largely compatible with an underlying Humanism. But if you view the words themselves as the carriers of a dangerous infection, you'll find today's UU churches to be unhygienic environments.  

Finally, UU congregations are tolerant to a fault. Literally anyone can show up at a UU church, believing any kind of craziness, and will not be told to go away. (In fact, if you take it on yourself to tell someone he or she doesn't belong, you are the one who is likely to be reprimanded.) If you mingle at the coffee hour after the Sunday service, you may run into astrologers, crystal gazers, faith healers, and new-agers of all varieties. They won't be anywhere close to the majority and most of them don't stay more than a few months. But if one such encounter ruins your whole week, you won't be a happy camper.

In short, if you are allergic to the appearances and words of traditional religion, Unitarian Universalism is not for you. If you are looking for a community of pure and unadulterated Humanism, you won't find it at a UU church.

But if you want to be accepted for the Humanist you are, without any fudging or hypocrisy, you can have that. If you want allies in the struggle to make the world a better place, you can find them. If you are stimulated by diverse points of view and enjoy engaging people who frame the world differently (but not too differently),  a UU church is a good place to meet them.

If you came to my church, you'd be welcome. You might be happy there, or you might not. Only you can judge.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

The Holiday of Rising Energy

presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois on May 1, 2016

Opening Words

The opening words are from Camelot:

It’s May! It’s May!

The lusty month of May. 

That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray.

It’s here! It’s here!

That shocking time of year.

When tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear.

It’s May! It’s May!

The month of great dismay.

When all the world is brimming with fun,

Wholesome or un.

It’s mad! It’s gay!

A libelous display!

Those dreary vows that everyone takes,

Everyone breaks.

Everyone makes divine mistakes

In the lusty month of May.

Responsive Reading

(by Henry David Thoreau)

Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life?

We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.

I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.

I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.

I do not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear.

Nor do I wish to practice resignation, unless it is quite necessary.

I wish to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. 

I want to cut a broad swath, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

If it proves to be mean, then to get to the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.

Or if it is sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it.


I want you to imagine that you are two years old, and running is something you have just recently gotten good at. 

All the energy that someday will animate a big clunky adult body is already in you right now. It's been compressed down into a tiny package, and you’re just bursting with it. 

Adults are always so tired and slow. They plop down into a chair or a couch and it seems so hard for them to move. But for you, it’s hard not to move. There’s so much energy in you, you just can’t bottle it up. So you run.

You’re not going anywhere, you’re not racing anybody, you’re just running. You run out to the fence and then run back. You chase the cat. You run around the swing set and then run around it again.

Do you know how amazing running is? Running changes the wind. The day can be perfectly still, but you run and suddenly there is wind in your face and your hair lifts off your ears and streams out behind you. 

And there’s one more thing you can try that just might work. You’ve seen older kids do it and it looks so unbelievable: You could jump.

Jumping is like running, but you don’t put a foot down to catch yourself. You get going really fast, and then you just pick your feet up and let yourself be in the air. 

You’ve tried it before and it hasn’t worked, you screwed the timing up or something. But that was days ago, when you were practically still a baby. You’re faster now, and this time maybe you can do it. 

So you go to the top of that little incline and start running down. You push it harder than you ever have before, and when you think you just can’t go any faster you give one last push and pick up your feet. 

You’re in the air.

It probably doesn’t look like much to anyone else. You don’t get very high. You don’t go very far. But for one timeless instant you are off the ground, touching nothing but air. 

It’s like flying.


Arguing with that spirit of May and Thoreau's ambition to suck the marrow out of life
is the belief that a truly enlightened person, someone of broad vision, would know that it’s all pointless. 

That child who runs in circles is, after all, running in circles. She’s not getting anywhere, and her feeling that what she’s doing is intensely meaningful and important is just one of those illusions that people are prone to. 

To this mindset, what it means to grow up and get educated is that you expand your scale of reference beyond your self-centered frame; maybe all the way out to the Infinite and the Eternal. And when you do that, you inevitably see the sheer insignificance
of anything human beings might ever achieve.

Shelley expressed that nihilistic view in his poem Ozymandias.

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear --

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.' 

But the curmudgeonly statement that has had the most influence in Western culture comes from the Bible. According to tradition, the Book of Ecclesiastes was the last thing written by Solomon, the wisest of the kings of Israel. 

“All is vanity,” he says, and it is foolish to think you are going to accomplish something that will last. Because the scale of the universe is utterly beyond you.

What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes,
and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down and hurries to the place where it rises again. The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow there they continue to flow. 

All things are wearisome more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing or the ear filled with hearing. What has been will be, and what has been done is what will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 

Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new"? It has already been in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.

Ecclesiastes is the voice of the old man who has seen it all and done it all and lived long enough to realize that it was all pointless. He pursued every possible pleasure, acquired every kind of possession, built great works, ruled over a kingdom. 

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after the wind.

Even then, you might think: Oh, but reaching that place of grand perspective — that must have been satisfying. Solomon denies us even that consolation. 

This also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.


When Ellen asked me to speak on May 1st, I warned her that the first word of the talk might be: Comrades! 

Because Mayday is famous as the holiday of revolution. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union would hold huge Mayday parades in Red Square, demonstrations of military might
that promised the eventual triumph of the workers’ revolution over capitalist oppression.

But the connection between Mayday and the workers' struggle actually predates the Soviets. Here in the United States in 1885, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions threatened a general strike across the country if the 8-hour day didn’t become standard by May 1st. 

The unions weren't really strong enough to pull off a nationwide strike, but some large cities did see several days of strikes and marches. In Chicago, a confrontation with police response became the Haymarket Riot, for which several labor organizers were sentenced to death. In subsequent years, the American labor movement held demonstrations on Mayday to honor the martyrs of Haymarket. The European socialist community, and eventually the Russians, picked it up from us.

But as the opening words reflected, Mayday celebrations predate the labor movement too. They go all the way back to the pagan festival of Beltane. 

Beltane is the holiday of rising energy, and falls halfway between spring equinox and summer solstice. In the British Isles, where I think the growing season
runs a few weeks behind what we see here in central Illinois, Beltane marked the beginning of the season of generativity, the lusty month of May. 

Beltane is a celebration of potential. In the same way that the meditation envisioned all the energy of an adult body compressed inside a two-year-old who just has to run, at Beltane the lushness and bounty of July and August and September is imagined as already existing in the Earth, waiting to explode into manifestation through these tiny sprouts and buds. 

To quote another show tune, by the end of the lusty month of May, June will be busting out all over. Because all the ram-sheep and the ewe-sheep are determined there’ll be new sheep.

And so on Beltane, a maiden would be crowned Queen of the May, and would lead her village in raising a Maypole, (which is basically just a giant phallus), to remind everybody that, yeah, it’s that time of year. 

It’s time to renew your fire — literally. Communities kindled a central bonfire, and households extinguished all their hearths and stoves and candles to relight them from the new flame. People would ritually walk between fires or jump over fires. 

Young couples would have sex in the fields, partly to participate in the energy of the season, and partly as sympathetic magic, to make sure the plants were getting the right idea: It’s time to be fruitful and multiply.

Independent of Haymarket or any other anniversaries, it makes a certain symbolic sense that Mayday becomes the holiday of revolution. In the same way that a farmer might see the crops of the fall already existing as potential in the sprouts and buds of May, a 19th-century revolutionary might look at the discontented miners, the secret workers’ study groups, and the fledgling union organizing committees, and see the sprouts and buds
of a fully realized socialist society, where working people would not just make a subsistence wage, but would enjoy all the fruits of their labor. 

Society might only have made it to May, but the imagination of a revolutionary can see August and September and October, when everything comes to fruition. All the energy needed to make that happen is already here, if we could only channel it and rise up.

Mayday is also the holiday of adolescence and first love, of the May Queen and her partners in the dance. When we use the calendar to symbolize a lifetime, May represents the adolescent. In the same way that the shoots and buds of May are ready to burst out into every kind of grain and fruit and flower, adolescents are ready to burst out into every kind of role and profession. Just as physical energy wells up inside toddlers, emotional energy and sexual energy and social energy wells up in adolescents, yearning to erupt into the world and become something. 

Adolescence is a time of almost pure potential, neither anchored by manifestation nor disillusioned by experience. Nothing has happened yet, but everything seems possible,
even things that appear impractical to their more prudent elders. 

Two and a half centuries ago, Adam Smith observed, “The contempt of risk, and the presumptuous hope of success, are in no period of life more active than at the age at which young people choose their professions.” 

If I’m 17, I could still rule the world someday, or I could fail totally and be a complete nonentity. Day to day, and sometimes even hour to hour, an adolescent’s expectations can swing from one extreme to the other. 

That unfulfilled potential is also the source of young people’s enviable resilience. A teen-ager’s dreams can crash and burnin a way that would be devastating in middle age. But in a week or two there can be new dreams, because the energy of life just keeps rising up, and it has to go somewhere. 

But what about those of uswho aren’t in the May of our lives? What should Mayday or Beltane mean to us?

In a few months I’m going to turn 60, which puts me in the October of life. By October, the harvest might not all be gathered in yet, but you can pretty well see the shape of it. All around me, friends are retiring, or retired already, or bringing their careers in for a landing. Friends who raised children have seen those children graduate, and maybe even marry and have children of their own. If I'm hearing someone's plans for bigger and better things than they’ve ever done before, I'm probably talking to one of those children I watched grow up, and not to anyone my own age.

Physically, the late 50s are a period of decline. So, for example, I still go out for runs. But not with the idea that I’m going to go faster or further than ever before. Instead, I’m just trying to hang on to my vitality as long as I can. I run cautiously, with my medical insurance card in my pocket, in case I injure myself. I’ve gotten very far away from that two-year-old who runs just for the thrill of running.

By your late 50s, the rituals of Beltane have lost a lot of their appeal. Jumping over a bonfire seems like an unnecessary risk. And even the fantasy of sex in the fields sounds inconvenient and probably uncomfortable.

But getting older isn't the only reason a person may not feel like celebrating a season of unbridled potential and explosive growth. At any age, the future might not be filling you with anticipation. Maybe, instead, you’re facing defeat or recovering from failure or grieving for someone you’ve lost. Maybe the bright green cheerfulness of May doesn’t excite you, so much asit mocks your lack of excitement.

Yes, energy is rising out there in the world, but what has that got to do with me?

At such times, it is tempting to echo the curmudgeonly attitude of Ecclesiastes: Yeah, I tried all those things that people get so whipped up about, and I was even good at some of it, but now I’ve risen above all that. I’ve gotten wise enough to see that it was all pointless. 

The child runs for the thrill of feeling the wind in her hair, and the old man says, “Vanity, vanity. It’s all just chasing the wind.” What does it matter than I ran and I jumped? That I ate good food and saw beautiful sunsets? That I built things or made things or owned things? That I read thick books and thought grand thoughts? The wind continues to blow this way and that, the rivers never manage to fill up the sea, and there is no new thing under the sun, or at least nothing that anybody will remember after a generation or two. 

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

But while I was preparing for this talk I re-read Ecclesiastes. (It’s short, you can do it in one sitting.) And this time, Solomon (or whoever the author really was) seemed to have a different message for me. He wasn’t trying to beat down my hopes or disparage my drive. 

Instead, he was warning me not to try to justify my life through some external result. Because ultimately, the result of life is death. And if I think I can rise above that biological reality by getting rich or becoming famous or writing a book or building a company or even founding a dynasty, in the long run it’s not going to work. Because sooner or later the deserts return and the sands cover whatever we make. 

Life is not a story where things work out in the end; in the end we die, and so does everybody we teach or help or influence. So the place where life needs to work out is in the middle. The point of life has to be in the living of it.

This time, Ecclesiastes wasn’t telling me to rise above life and all the silly things people do. Quite the opposite, it was saying that the two-year-old has it right. It’s fine to imagine
that you’re running to somewhere and that something wonderful will happen when you get there. But the best reason to run is for the joy of running.

Now, this point of view has gotten the reputation of being immature or unsophisticated. The sophisticated point of view is supposed to be that of the pessimist or the cynic. 

But I think that’s because we describe it badly. The examples we usually give are like the one I just used: the two-year-old, the innocent. In the archetypes of the Tarot, the card that represents the joy of life is the Fool, who is happily striding towards the edge of a cliff. 

Or we say “Eat, drink, and be merry” — something else sophisticated curmudgeons can feel superior to: Just indulge your animal desires, because if you thought about things at all, you’d realize that life is pointless and you’d get depressed. The attempt to enjoy life on the terms that it offers is sometimes portrayed as denial, like the partiers in “The Masque of the Red Death” who dance ever more frantically the clearer it becomes that something is horribly wrong.

But the physical pleasures of motion or consumption just symbolize the joy of life; they aren’t the whole story. In fact, there is no pinnacle of cold wisdom that rises above joy the way that an icy mountaintop rises above the treeline. Life-affirming experiences are possible at every level of consciousness. So on this holiday that celebrates possibilities, let’s recall a few of them.

Just as you can identify with your body and completely submerge yourself in whatever is happening physically, you can also identify with the role you’re playing, and for a period of time you can just be that role. For a moment or an hour or an afternoon, you just are a teacher or a healer or a friend. Sometimes doing the right thing, fighting for justice or uncovering the truth can give you a feeling of being exactly where you’re supposed to be, independent of how things ultimately work out. 

Maybe you’re doing something entirely mundane, something you’ve done a thousand times before. You’re a plumber looking for a leak or a carpenter framing a house or a chef making a sauce, but you lose yourself in the activity, and for a while that’s all you need. Or maybe this moment is special. You are the father of the bride, or the grandmother who has brought the family back together for one perfect Thanksgiving.

Just as you can run for the joy of running, you can also think for the joy of thinking. Maybe you’re making the breakthrough that completes the Grand Theory of Everything or maybe you’re just working on the Sudoku puzzle in The Herald Whig. But you experience your mind in motion and it feels good. 

Sometimes you can even blow your mind. Two or three ideas you’d always kept in their own little boxes turn out to be related, and suddenly a vast new landscape stretches out in front of you, and you have no idea how far it goes. The intricacy of the Universe is just more wonderful than you had ever imagined.

There are epiphanies of beauty. Sometimes you find them in the natural world when you look out at a sunset or up at the stars or down into a microscope. Sometimes you find them in the arts, when a painting or a sculpture hits you just right. Or you listen to a poem or a song or symphony for the hundredth time, but this time you really hear it. Such moments don’t have to mean something or lead anywhere. They just are.

There are mystical epiphanies, when you see the world in a grain of sand and discover that you love it, when you have compassion for every being that suffers, or when you make contact with a grace so enormous that it forgives everything.

And if you believe the mystics, they have maps of human experiences that keep on going from there. To tell the truth, I have no clue what some of those higher spheres or upper chakras are supposed to do. But those who claim to have experienced them describe them as bliss. There is no wisdom so advanced or enlightenment so grand, that all the joy of living is now beneath you.

So those of us who might have trouble identifying with May right now, whether because of physical decline or some other reason, if we refuse to become curmudgeons, if we refuse to use Mayday as an excuse to look down on these foolish teen-agers with all their dancing and flirting and impractical ambitions, how should we celebrate the holiday of rising energy?

I suggest that we take a broader view of what the season represents and what it might mean to us. There is a virtuous cycle, in which the energy of life rises up in you and through you. And if it manages to express itself as joy, a circuit gets completed that draws up new energy. 

There are times when that process seems so easy. Energy becomes joy becomes energy,
round and round, as if it were happening on its own and didn’t require your attention at all. 

But yes, there are other times, when energy and joy will not come to you no matter how loudly you call. You go through the motions of the activities that used to invoke the joy of life, but nothing happens. Poetry is boring and puzzle-solving is drudgery and every role you know feels like a trap you can never escape from. Sometimes your compassion is burned out, and even good food just makes you nauseous. 

Eat, drink, and be merry indeed! As if things were just that simple.

And if someone suggests that a life-affirming experience is supposed to be available here ... that just increases the frustration and anger and despair that comes from not finding it.

One sunny day a year or so before he died, I picked my father up at Sunset Home and drove him out to the farm my grandfather bought almost a century ago, the one my father grew up on and still owned and had worked for most of his life. We looked at the fields, the crops, and the machinery, and he seemed to enjoy himself. But the next time I offered he didn’t want to go. He said it would just remind him of all the things he couldn’t do any more.

So how should we celebrate the holiday of rising energy if our own energies aren't rising? Perhaps Mayday could be a time of taking stock. Where does joy still manifest in our lives, and how can we help that process along? 

It may not be happening where we’ve been expecting it, in the places where we used to find it. In a time of decline or defeat or depression, Mayday can be a reminder to search the garden of life for the shoots and buds it still produces, in whatever odd places they might be. 

Socrates, when he was old and had lost his trial and was waiting in prison for his death sentence to be carried out, found himself drawn to write poetry for the first time in his life. Who would have predicted?

Those little shoots and buds, those tiny ways that small amounts of joy still enter your life, may seem unimportant, even trivial. But they are the offer Life is making, an indication of the energy it still wants to invest. And energy can become joy and draw up new energy. Small as they seem, if you nurture them, they could grow. Any tiny spark could be the beginning of new fire.

These tiny sprouts, these little flames, they may not bear comparison now or ever to what we’ve seen in the past. And they may look like nothing when viewed from the perspective of Eternity. 

But they are what they are. And what they are is a sign that Life is not done with us yet. That, I believe, is worth celebrating. 

Happy Mayday.


The closing words are from Ecclesiastes, because after all that discouraging talk about vanity and chasing the wind, the author does not advise us to lay down and die. Quite the opposite:

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your insubstantial life. 

Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your might.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Who Owns the World? (2016 version)

presented at First Church in Billerica on March 6, 2016

Opening Words

When I give food to the poor, 
they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, 
they call me a communist. — Archbishop Hélder Câmara of Brazil


Pope Francis is often thought of as a progressive
 or even radical pope, 
but much of his message has been 
to re-emphasize Catholic social justice teachings 
that go back more than a century, 
and have been restated by every pope since. Our first reading is from one of those prior encyclicals, Laborem Exercens, written by John Paul II in 1981. (One progressive thing popes didn’t do in 1981 
was to use gender-inclusive language. So I apologize for that in advance.)

Working at any workbench, 
whether a relatively primitive or an ultramodern one, 
a man can easily see that through his work 
he enters into two inheritances: 
the inheritance of what is given 
to the whole of humanity in the resources of nature, and the inheritance of what others 
have already developed 
on the basis of those resources, 
primarily by developing technology, 
that is to say, 
by producing a whole collection 
of increasingly perfect instruments for work.

The second reading is from Ayn Rand, 
a favorite author of Speaker Paul Ryan 
and many other conservatives. This paragraph is from her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, and in particular from the John Galt speech 
that is the philosophical climax of the novel. Here, Galt is also talking about 
those “increasingly perfect instruments for work” — specifically, the steel factory owned 
by one of the novel’s other heroes, 
the industrialist Hank Rearden. 

The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, 
is the power that expands the potential of your life 
by raising the productivity of your time. If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist 
of an iron bar produced by your hands 
in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day 
if you work for Hank Rearden? Would you dare to claim 
that the size of your pay check 
was created solely by your physical labor 
and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith 
is all that your muscles are worth; 
the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden.

I’ll hit this point harder later on, 
but look at what Galt has done 
to what the Pope called “the second inheritance”, 
the inheritance of technology. In Galt’s view, Hank Rearden is not just the inventor 
of the specific new products his factory produces, 
he is the sole rightful heir 
of all technological progress since the Middle Ages. Having been disinherited from the legacy of past inventors, the workers’ standard of living rises 
only through their employer’s generosity. Anything more than a medieval wage 
is essentially just charity. It is “a gift from Hank Rearden”.

The final reading is “The Goose and the Common”, 
a protest poem from 18th-century England. For centuries, the people of England 
had been suffering through a process 
known as Enclosure, in which a village’s common land 
would be fenced off 
and become the private property of the local lord.  To appreciate the poem’s biting humor, 
you need to know this piece of 18th-century slang: a goose was not just a bird, 
it was also an ordinary person — 
a usage that survives today 
in phrases like “silly goose” 
or “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” 

The law locks up the man or woman

who steals the goose from off the Common,

but leaves the greater villain loose
who steals the Common from off the goose.

The law says that we must atone

when we take what we do not own,
but leaves the lords and ladies fine

when they take what is yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don't escape

when they conspire the law to break.

This must be so, but they endure

those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman

who steals the goose from off the Common.

And geese will still a Common lack

until they go and steal it back.


The meditation is a vision of peace and prosperity 
that comes from the prophet Micah: “They will sit under their own grapevines 
and their own fig trees, 
and no one will make them afraid.”


Unitarian Universalists talk a lot about social justice. And when we when talk among ourselves, 
we all more-or-less know what social justice means: Things should be more equal. 
The disadvantaged should be less disadvantaged. 
No one should be hungry. 
The sick or injured should be cared for. 
Education should available to everyone. 
And so on.

We’re much better making these kinds of lists 
than we are at explaining 
why this world we’re envisioning is just. Where is the justice in social justice?

Among ourselves, 
we usually don’t need to answer that question. Most people with UU values just feel it, 
without explanation. You say, “Isn’t it awful that in such a wealthy country, 
so many people are hungry or homeless
 or go without healthcare or education?” And whoever you are talking to probably says, 
“Yes, it is awful.” And the conversation goes on from there.

There’s nothing wrong with that conversation. But if that’s what we’re expecting, 
then we’ll be at a loss 
when we talk to people 
who have a different notion of justice. For example, justice could also mean 
that people get to keep the things they own, 
unless or until they decide to give them away.

If that’s what justice means to you, 
then when you hear that list of social justice goals, you’ll wonder where the money is going to come from. Who is going to pay the farmers and teachers and doctors who provide those goods and services? And more specifically, 
is the government going to take that money by force from the people who rightfully own it. Because, what’s just about that?

In one of the 2012 presidential debates, 
a young man asked the Republican candidates: “Out of every dollar that I earn, how much do you think that I deserve to keep?” Afterwards, Ron Paul had a clear and simple answer: “All of it.”

Former Judge Andrew Napolitano, 
a frequent Fox News contributor, 
has generated this fantasy:

You're sitting at home at night, 
and there's a knock at the door. You open the door, 
and a guy with a gun pointed at you says: 
"Give me your money. 
I want to give it away to the less fortunate." You think he's dangerous and crazy, 
so you call the police. Then you find out he is the police, 
there to collect your taxes.

Napolitano saw the income tax 
as representing “a terrifying presumption. 
It presumes that we don't really own our property.” 
We only own the part of it 
that the government chooses not to take.

No wonder Glenn Beck told his listeners: “Look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can.”

When people respond to your social justice talk 
by grabbing their wallets and running away, 
it’s tempting to write them off 
as selfish or hard-hearted. But many of them aren’t. Some people who look at the world this way 
are quite generous. 
They give money away. 
They volunteer. 
They put themselves out for other people. 

But the model they put on this behavior 
isn’t justice, it’s charity. They do it out of the goodness of their hearts, 
not because they are under some obligation. And they expect the beneficiaries of their generosity 
to receive those gifts with humility and gratitude. Because, after all, beggars shouldn’t be choosers. 

And if the amount 
that individuals are willing to give away 
doesn’t match the need 
— which it never does — 
then the charity mindset sees that 
not as a flaw in the system, 
but as a problem of personal morality. We need to do a better job of preaching generosity, 
not change the way our economy works.

Ultimately, if our social justice work is going to succeed, we need to do more than just talk to each other 
and shake our heads at people who disagree. We need to critique that charity-based worldview 
and explain why it’s inadequate. In short, we need to explain what’s just about social justice. 

The beginning of that critique was in our opening words: It’s fine to give food to the poor, 
but we also need to take the next step 
and ask why the poor have no food. Why can’t everybody buy their own food,
 save for their own retirement, 
pay for their own health insurance, 
and educate their own children? And if they can’t, 
what does that have to do with those of us who can? Why should our property or income 
be entailed with some kind of obligation 
to provide for them?

Those are hard questions, 
and so right away you notice a major difference between a charity mindset
and a social justice mindset: Charity comes from the heart, 
and often finds itself in conflict 
with more practical thinking. 

But social justice demands 
that head and heart work together. It’s not enough feel sorry for the poor, 
we need to understand how poverty happens, 
and how the system that creates 
such a gulf between rich and poor justifies itself. If the system that your reason supports 
leads to a result that your compassion rejects, 
social justice suggests 
that maybe you're taking something for granted 
that you shouldn't. Social justice doesn’t ask you to give up on thinking 
and follow your heart. Instead it tells you to check your assumptions 
and think again.

Whenever I try to rethink things, 
my first instinct is to go back in time 
and read works that are a little closer 
to the era when the original assumptions were made. In this case there’s also a considerable irony 
in the author I want to tell you about, 
the Revolutionary War pamphleteer Thomas Paine. 

You see, at about the same time 
that Glenn Beck started telling everybody 
to run away from social justice, 
he was also styling himself 
as a modern-day Thomas Paine. He named one of his books Common Sense, 
and claimed to be updating Paine’s classic 
to call for the Tea Party revolution that we need today. Now, if you actually know something about Thomas Paine, this is perversely hilarious. Because in addition to his role in founding our country, Paine is also one of the founders 
of the American social justice tradition.

Thomas Paine was one of the true revolutionaries 
of the American Revolution. After we won our independence, 
he moved to England to stir up revolution there. And when the British deported him, 
Lafayette invited him to Paris 
where he tried to be the conscience 
of the French Revolution. That got him thrown into prison during the Reign of Terror, and only a bureaucratic mistake 
delayed his execution 
long enough for Robespierre to fall. Eventually the American ambassador, 
future president James Monroe, 
got him released. And in 1795, while he was staying with the Monroes 
and recovering from his ordeal, 
he wrote a little book called Agrarian Justice.

Agrarian Justice is addressed to the English, 
and proposes that when each young adult comes of age, the government should give him or her
— I’m not being politically correct, 
Paine wrote gender equality into his system — 
a stake of capital to get a start in life. Also, those who survive to old age should get a pension. And all this should be funded 
by an inheritance tax on land. 

Paine writes: “It is justice and not charity 
that is the principle of the plan.” In his mind, young adults were entitled 
to a stake in the economy, 
and old people were entitled to a pension. And the rationale for his inheritance tax 
would strike fear into the heart of Judge Napolitano: Paine believed that we don’t entirely own our property, 
and that all property comes entailed 
with obligations to others.

So Paine was not trying to appeal to people’s compassion and preach personal generosity. He was challenging their fundamental assumptions, 
and asking them to think again 
about one of the most basic concepts 
of the 18th-century economy: landed property.

When people have lived under a property system 
their entire lives 
-- as the English had then and we have today -- 
they tend to take it for granted. But Paine did not take the property system for granted, because he had seen the example 
of the Native Americans. He writes:

The life of an Indian is a continual holiday compared with the poor of Europe; 
and, on the other hand, it appears to be abject 
when compared to the rich. … Civilization, therefore, or that which is so called, 
has operated in two ways: 
to make one part of society more affluent, 
and the other more wretched, 
than would have been the lot of either 
in a natural state.

But wait, European-style civilization 
is supposed to be a good thing, isn’t it? Paine agrees:

The first principle of civilization ought to have been, 
and ought still to be, 
that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, 
ought not to be worse 
than if he had been born before that period.

Now that’s a fine heartfelt sentiment. But if our heads are going to come along on this trip, 
we need to understand 
why things didn’t turn out that way. Was there some reason why the poor had to be wretched, 
or did European civilization make some early mistake 
that led to that result? Paine says there was a mistake, 
and it has to do with 
how we invented the concept of property.

Let me stop here for a minute, 
because I just snuck in a radical idea: Property is a human invention. Today, a lot of people write about property 
as if it were natural, 
something that exists prior 
to all societies or governments. But that’s just not true.

Paine uses theological imagery to lampoon this belief: "The Creator of the earth," he says,
 did not "open a land office 
from which the first title deeds should issue."

He might also have pointed to the animal world, 
because nothing remotely like property 
exists in nature. Animals have territory, 
which is a very different idea. A bird may chase rival birds away 
from the tree where it nests. But no bird has ever sold a tree to another bird, 
or rented a nest, 
or taken in someone else’s egg 
in exchange for a few worms. The tree and the nest are not property.

Similarly, land as private property 
is not a natural concept at all. Paine writes: 

The earth in its natural, uncultivated state, was, 
and ever would have continued to be 
would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life-proprietor with the rest 
in the property of the soil, 
and in all its natural productions, 
vegetable and animal.

Being a practical man, Paine recognizes 
that modern agriculture would not work on those terms, 
because it requires a long investment of effort 
before you see any product. You have to cut down the trees 
and pull up the stumps 
and dig out the rocks. Each year you have to plow and plant 
and fertilize and weed. And who would do all that if, in the end, 
he had no more right than anyone else 
to gather the harvest?

So Paine believed it was right and just 
for the difference in value 
between cultivated land and uncultivated land 
to be private property. Not the land itself -- 
the difference in value 
between cultivated and uncultivated land. And here he locates the original mistake, 
the original sin for which the poor pay the price. Rather than just let people own the value 
of their improvements in the productivity of the land, we created a system 
in which they own the land. We created a system in which the Earth itself is owned, 
not by humanity in general, 
but only by the people who have their names on deeds.

Consequently, a hungry Indian 
could go hunt in the forest or fish in the pond 
that was part of his tribe’s territory, 
but a hungry Englishman could not, 
because those natural resources 
were owned by some other Englishman. In short, the poor of Europe 
were worse off than the Native Americans 
not because God created them that way, 
and not because they were lazy or stupid, 
but because they had been disinherited; 
their share of the common inheritance of humankind had been usurped.

Paine was just talking about land, 
but it’s easy to see how his ideas extend to other areas. No one would dig a mine or drill a well 
if they had no claim on the resulting iron or gold or oil, but some part of that output 
also has to belong to the common inheritance. It can't all be private property.

And consider not just our physical inheritance, 
but our cultural inheritance. I’m a writer. I work in words and sometimes I sell my words. But I did not invent the English language, 
or teach it to all of you 
so that you could understand me. And the ideas I’m telling you this morning: 
I have some claim to them, 
but large parts come from Thomas Paine 
and Pope John Paul II 
and other benefactors of our cultural legacy. So if there is value in my words, 
I didn’t create that value out of nothing. Part of that value should belong to me, 
but part rightfully should go back 
into the common inheritance.

The same is true for the Hank Reardens of this world, 
the inventors, researchers, and industrialists. They do indeed create value, 
but they don’t create it out of nothing. As Newton put it, they stand on the shoulders of giants, 
and the legacy of those giants 
should belong to everyone.

In short, I’m endorsing that idea 
that so scares Judge Napolitano: We don’t really own what we own, 
free and clear, with no obligations. And to that young man at the presidential debate, 
I would say: 
“You earned that dollar 
by using the common inheritance. 
Some part of it needs to go back.”

We all owe a debt to the common inheritance, 
because none of us makes things 
by calling them out of nothing, 
like the God of Genesis. Everything we make 
relies on the resources of the Earth 
and the tools that have been passed down to us. Paying our debt to the common inheritance -- 
and particularly to those 
whose share of that inheritance 
has been usurped -- 
is the “justice” in social justice.

The flaw in the charity mindset 
is that it refuses to recognize that debt. It accepts, without question or objection, 
disinheriting the poor from the common legacy. Once you have done that, 
they have no rightful claim on anything 
beyond what the rest of us volunteer to give them. And any tax collector who shows up 
demanding money to help the less fortunate 
is just a well-intentioned thief. 

But if you do accept that the poor 
are owed a share of the common inheritance, 
how should they collect it? Paine, as I said, was a practical man, 
and he recognized that he couldn't even calculate 
the rents and royalties that the poor have coming, 
much less collect and distribute them. 

Instead, he proposes that everyone be offered a deal: In payment for your share of the common inheritance, 
in exchange for your acceptance 
that you were born into a world 
where virtually everything of value 
was already claimed by someone else 
-- we’ll offer you this: When you reach adulthood, 
we’ll give you a stake, some bit of capital 
that can get you started in life. And if you make it to an age 
where you can’t reasonably expect to work any more, we’ll give you a pension. That's how he proposes to make good on the principle 
that civilization should benefit everyone, 
and not just some at the expense of others.

Notice that Paine does not propose a dole, 
or some program of bread and circuses, 
or make-work projects 
that will give everyone a meaningless job. His proposal is much more radical than that: 
The poor should be capitalized. Everyone should have a stake, 
a chance to launch themselves 
into the middle of the economy 
rather than start at the bottom.

In Paine’s day, that didn’t take much.

When a young couple begin the world, 
the difference is exceedingly great 
whether they begin with nothing 
or with fifteen pounds apiece. With this aid they could buy a cow, 
and implements to cultivate a few acres of land; 
and instead of becoming burdens upon society … would be put in the way 
of becoming useful and profitable citizens.

A similar idea has popped up in many other guises. In Biblical times capital meant land, 
which is why Micah envisioned every family 
under its own vines and fig trees. Later on in the encyclical I quoted, 
Pope John Paul II envisions the ideal society 
not as a Great Feeding Trough 
but as a Great Workbench, 
where we all have our place 
and access to the tools we need to be productive.

Launching yourself into today's information economy 
may be more complicated than in Paine's day, but the value of the common inheritance has grown. Exactly what deal it makes sense to offer now, 
in lieu of the inheritance we still can’t deliver, 
is a topic for another day. But certainly education must be part of it, 
and childhood nutrition. In general, people should be freed from poverty traps, 
from situations in which their short-term survival depends on doing things 
that harm their long-term interests. No heir of a rich inheritance 
should ever have to eat the seed corn.

The Pope’s image goes a long way 
towards helping us evaluate the adequacy 
of any proposal: Everyone should have a seat at the Great Workbench. That seat should belong to them by right, 
and not depend on anyone's approval or generosity.

Even if we had such a program, 
if we had a way to deliver 
to each and every person 
the value of their share of the common inheritance, things could still go wrong. A Prodigal Son might waste his inheritance. Unlucky people might lose their stakes 
to accident or illness. Some people's abilities might be so limited 
that no tools we can provide 
will make them productive. There would, in other words, still be occasions for charity.

But that is not where we are now. In the world we live in today, 
people are poor 
because the common inheritance has been usurped 
by people who believe that what is theirs is theirs, 
and they owe no one for its use; who believe that only land-owners 
are beneficiaries of the Creation; that businessmen and industrialists 
are the sole heirs of technological progress; that only the educated rightfully inherit our cultural legacy.

After the inheritance 
or some fair compensation for it 
has been delivered to all people, 
then charity might be enough. But until then, we should never stop demanding justice.

Closing words

The closing words are 
by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr.

Rich relations may give you
crusts of bread and such.
You can help yourself,
but don’t take too much.
Cause Mama may have,
and Poppa may have.
But God bless the child that’s got his own.