Another way

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2015 Daniel Harper.

We Unitarian Universalists are known for our openness to the beliefs and practices of other religions. But we also have our own native spiritual practices, and today I’d like to tell you about spiritual practices from our own tradition, rooted in the relationships between human and non-human beings. I have to warn you, though, that this native Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice is a challenging spiritual practice to follow; which might explain why we have mostly ignored it, and instead turned to popularized spiritual practices from other traditions that aren’t so demanding.

And this native Unitarian spiritual practice starts with the story of how Henry Thoreau, who was raised a Unitarian, went to live at Walden Pond.

When Henry Thoreau got out of college, he had to decide on a career. First he was by his home town of Concord, Massachusetts, as a school teacher. He lasted two weeks. A member of the school committee dropped in to see how the new teacher was doing, and told Thoreau to improve discipline by using more corporal punishment. Thoreau called on half a dozen students at random, beat them, and handed in his resignation that night. (1)

Next Thoreau went to work for his father in the family business of manufacturing pencils. But this was a job and not a vocation; so he also started writing regularly in a journal; and, along with the rest of his Unitarian family, he became an abolitionist, trying to abolish slavery in the United States.

Henry Thoreau still wanted a job that would be a calling, a vocation. So he and his beloved older brother John started their own school. This school, what we today might call a progressive school, was a great success. Their school only lasted for two years, until John’s tuberculosis worsened to the point where he could no longer teach, and so they closed the school. Over the next year, John started to recover from tuberculosis — but then he accidentally nicked his finger with a razor, contracted tetanus, and died a week later.

His brother’s death deepened Henry’s struggle to find his path in life. Henry drifted along, trying different things, until three years after John died, when he got permission to go live on a woodlot owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, right next to the railroad tracks on the shores of Walden Pond.

Henry built himself a small cabin there. He cleared some ground and planted a garden. He spent much of his days outdoors. He read deeply in ancient Greek and Roman literature, in the Bible, and in the holy books of other world religions. In his journal, he wrote about what he had seen in the outdoors. He wrote a memoir about a camping trip he and John had taken, rowing down the Concord River to the Merrimack River, then upstream till they could go no further, then traveling by land to the White Mountains, then into the mountains and all the way up Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England.

Henry Thoreau didn’t got to Walden Pond to pretend to live in the wilderness; he didn’t live there to escape from the world. In fact, the opposite is true: his cabin on Walden Pond was a station on the Underground Railroad. Some people are embarrassed by Thoreau, saying: Oh, but when he was at Walden Pond, he went to his mother’s house to eat dinner and get his laundry done! Yes, and while he was at his mother’s house he plotted with Concord’s radical abolitionists on how to help slaves escape.

So far from trying to escape from the world, Thoreau got himself arrested while living at Walden Pond. He refused to pay the poll tax, which, he said, was an immoral tax because it went to pay for an unjust war against Mexico. He spent just one night in jail because someone — he never learned who it was — paid his poll tax for him, probably out of embarrassment that this Harvard graduate wound up in the town jail with drunks and uneducated bums.

Henry Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years and two months, keeping track of when the flowers bloomed, watching the trees come into leaf, and then he went back to live with his parents and sisters. He had finished the business he had to transact at Walden Pond: his spiritual path led him elsewhere.

I think Thoreau is very difficult for many of us Unitarian Universalists today because he is more concerned with transcendent reality than with his career. He made his money manufacturing pencils and working as a surveyor. But his real concern was not his paid jobs, it was his spiritual life.

Our priorities tend to be the other way around: we think our careers deserve more time than our spiritual lives; or maybe we think that our careers are a spiritual matter. Here in Silicon Valley, we worship our jobs, and we like the fact that we can brag about working seventy hours a week — actually, I’m now down to about fifty hours a week, most weeks, except when I work more than that — and we don’t like it when Henry Thoreau tells us, quite convincingly, that we need only work a couple of months a year to provide for the necessities of life. If we did this, says Thoreau, we could spend the bulk of our lives contemplating the divine reality that we mostly ignore. But rather than confront this embarrassing truth, we turn our attention to other, less demanding, spiritual paths. Take, for example, the current Silicon Valley fascination with mindfulness. “Mindfulness” turns out a mis-translation of the ancient Pali word “sati,” a subtle Buddhist concept that means something like “memory of the present.” (2) But we prefer our Westernized and mis-translated version of mindfulness because it demands so little from us. Mindfulness is pursued by executives from Fortune 500 companies, so it must be good. Mindfulness means we do not have to give up our seventy-hour-a-week jobs, because we can be mindful at work, which will make us more productive, and allow us to spend even more time at work.

“As for work, we haven’t any of any consequence [says Thoreau]. We have the Saint Vitus’ dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still. If I should only give a few pulls at the parish bell-rope, as for a fire, there is hardly anyone within hearing, notwithstanding that press of engagements which was his excuse so many times this morning, but would forsake all and follow that sound, not mainly to save property from the flames, but, if we will confess the truth, much more to see it burn, since burn it must, and we, be it known, did not set it on fire.” (3) Today we do not even need to leave to comfort of our cubicle to watch the fire, we just wait for someone to post a video on Facebook. And so we are distracted for a pleasant moment in our seventy hour work week.

Because he will cause you to doubt about the value of your career, I cannot recommend Thoreau as a spiritual guide. But if you are crazy enough to want to follow Thoreau’s spiritual and religious example, I’ll tell you about three life-changing spiritual practices recommended by Thoreau.

The first spiritual practice is to spend a great deal of time outdoors, closely observing the natural world. Thoreau spent hours each day outdoors, checking to see when the various species of flowering plants first bloomed each year, watching how dead animals decay, closely observing all the minutiae of life around him, and then recording his careful observations of human and non-human beings in his journal. I’ve tried this a couple of times recently — spend most of the day outdoors, observing the relation of humans to non-humans, the interdependence of living things, how living things depend on non-living things — and I can report more than just about any other spiritual practice, it has gotten me closer to a transcendent reality. The problem with this spiritual practice, however, is that it makes me a less effective employee of this church, because I begin to believe it as important to watch Black Phoebes build their nest under the eaves outside the door to my office, than answer the email you have sent to me.

The second spiritual practice is to read the holy books of the great world religions. Thoreau lived at a time when the scriptures of non-Christian religions were being translated into European languages for the first time. Of course he already knew the Western Bible, and the spiritual writing of the ancient Romans and Greeks. But he was also able to read deeply in books like the Confucian Analects, and make those stories become a part of him, as when he writes: “Kieou-he-yu (great dignitary of the state of Wei) sent a man to Khoung-tseu [Confucius] to know his news. Khoung-tseu caused the messenger to be seated near him, and questioned him in these terms: What is your master doing? The messenger answered with respect: My master desires to diminish the number of his faults, but he cannot come to the end of them. The messenger being gone, the philosopher remarked: What a worthy messenger! What a worthy messenger!” (3) So it was that Thoreau understood the place of humans in the universe: as much as we might like to think we are like gods, we are in fact limited fallible beings. Books like this keep us from thinking we are better than other humans, or thinking that humans are somehow better than non-human beings. Thus we open ourselves to the web of relationships of which we are a part. And the problem with this spiritual practice is that it is a blow to your pride, from which you may never want to recover.

The third spiritual practice is to find your own way to truth. Thoreau did think that everyone should go build a cabin on a woodlot borrowed from Ralph Waldo Emerson. He did not care whether or not we read the Confucian Analects. He was not trying to recruit us to join the Underground Railroad. He wanted us to come face to face with reality, to see the world as it really is, to ignore illusions of progress represented by commercial success. This has been the task of religion since the dawn of time: to get us to see things as they really are. But this is a dangerous task. Thoreau said: “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” And this is why you should ignore this part of our Unitarian Universalist religious tradition. It is safer to stick to the popularized versions of religion. Go take yoga classes, but do not delve into the depths of Hindu philosophy. Practice mindfulness, but ignore the difficult path of Buddhist enlightenment. Read leadership books that quote ancient Chinese philosophers, but do not attempt to diminish the number of your faults. Come to church here if you like, but do not take seriously the ravings of prophets like Isaiah and Jesus and Jeremiah who say we can make this world a better place.

So I will close by telling you this: Don’t read Thoreau. He will only cause you trouble. If you are young, he will tempt you to drop out of school and go hike the Pacific Crest Trail (which is our North American version of the pilgrimages to the holy land), and then you will not get into Harvard and your life will be ruined. If you are trying to raise children in Silicon Valley, he will tempt you to tell your children: “Stop doing homework and spend time outdoors!” and then they won’t get in to Stanford and their lives will be ruined. If you are retired, he will tempt to become like the retired admirers of Thoreau I once knew who devoted their time and money to social justice causes and filed their bills as follows: Bills To Be Paid; To Be Paid When There’s Money; Refuse To Pay for Ethical Reasons. Trust me, this is a recipe for trouble.

No, you should stay away from people like Thoreau. He will make you crave only reality. He is like all those religious prophets, telling us that we need not live the way we do now, that we can follow a better way.

(1) The facts of Thoreau’s life are taken from the standard scholarly biography: Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, enlarged and corrected edition (Princeton University Press, 1982).
(2) For the origins of the word “mindfulness” in English, see Virginia Heffernan, “Mind the Gap,” New York Times Magazine, April 19, 2015, p. 14.
(3) Walden, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.”
(4) Analects Book 14.26.1-2. In James Legge’s translation: “Chu Po-yu sent a messenger with friendly inquiries to Confucius. Confucius sat with him, and questioned him. ‘What,’ said he, ‘is your master engaged in?’ The messenger replied, ‘My master is anxious to make his faults few, but he has not yet succeeded.’ He then went out, and the Master said, ‘A messenger indeed! A messenger indeed!’”

Universal Thrift

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.


The first reading was from the article “Creating Social Value” by Philip Auerswald, in the spring, 2009, issue of Standford Social Innovation Review:

“For most of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, economists saw themselves as ‘moral philosophers,’ as qualified to comment on the equity of societal processes as on their efficiency. That tradition came to an end rather abruptly with the publication in 1939 by John R. Hicks of the classic book Value and Capital — a work that took the creation of value as a starting point for fundamental theoretical syntheses. At a time when ideological excesses, such as communism and fascism, were becoming the norm, Hicks and his colleagues at the London School of Economics and the University of Cambridge were intent on reestablishing the field of economics on firm scientific foundations, immune to whim or rhetoric. Hicks asserted forcefully that the field of economics should be based, not on the fantasy of objectively measured happiness, but rather on subjective judgments of value as revealed through market transactions. Because utility was not measurable, interpersonal comparisons were out of bounds.” [p. 54]

The second reading was from the Gospel of Thomas, chapter 65, Scholar’s Version translation:

“A person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers, so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so the farmers would give him the vineyard’s crop. They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master. His master said, ‘Perhaps they didn’t know him.’ He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one as well. Then the master sent his son and said, ‘Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.’ Because the farmers knew that he was the heir to the vineyard, they grabbed him and killed him….”

Sermon: “Universal Thrift”

The best churches, churches that uphold the highest ideals, tend to be critical of the society around them. I believe that in this sense our church is one of the best churches, for we do uphold the highest ideals. When we look at the world around us, we see the many things that are wrong with human society; because of our high ideals, we see ways in which human society could be so much better than it is now. We not only hold high ideals, we also act on those ideals, and when we take action on our ideals we are being critical of the society around us.

This morning I’d like to speak with you about one church project in which we have lived out our ideals in two areas: sustainability, and helping out those of lower economic status. I am referring to Universal Thrift Store, the store we house in our church basement, which recycles used clothing and housewares by making them available at low prices to anyone who comes in the store. There’s nothing new about churches hosting thrift stores, but I find Universal Thrift more interesting than the average church thrift store, partly because of the store’s goals, and partly because of some of the innovative approaches to running a thrift store that are being taken. Let me tell you some of Universal Thrift’s story, and then I’ll relate the story of Universal Thrift to some larger religious questions.

Universal Thrift Store was started by Lorial Laughery-Weincek in 2003; the Board of Trustees voted to approve the Thrift Store on June 3, 2003, and it opened for business soon thereafter. As I understand it, a major part of Lorial’s motivation when she founded Universal Thrift was to raise funds to go towards the operating expenses of the church. Lorial knew that she had the skills to run a profitable thrift store and the church needed additional income, so everyone would benefit.

But Universal Thrift was always more than a way to raise money for the church. Lorial had contacts with many social service agencies in the city, and every now and again those social service agencies would send a person in need to Universal Thrift, with a letter asking if Lorial could give that person clothing or housewares at no cost. A family with small children might have had a fire in their apartment, and Universal Thrift could provide that family with basic clothing, and enough pots and pans and dishes so they could cook and eat. Or a woman with children who had escaped from an abusive relationship might need clothing and housewares, and again Universal Thrift could supply a few basic things for free, enough to get that family started in their new life.

Under Lorial’s management, Universal Thrift became more than just a store or social service provider. It was also something of a social center for several groups of people. There was the small and changing group of volunteers who would help Lorial, some on a regular basis and some on an irregular basis. There were the regular customers who came back week after week, and maybe they bought something, but maybe they came to chat with Lorial and the volunteers. And there were a few people who never bought anything, but Universal Thrift was one of their hangouts. Anyone, of any economic or social status, could come into Universal Thrift and be treated as a human being, treated with dignity and respect. Shoplifters were warned away, but even they were treated as human beings — misguided human beings, because who’d be silly enough to shoplift in a place like Universal Thrift, but human beings none the less.

Late last summer, we started experienced an economic crisis, which we now know is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. At about the same time, Lorial underwent a serious illness. Now from 2003 through 2008, Lorial had run Universal Thrift herself. When I learned that Lorial was too ill to work at Universal Thrift, I thought that would be the end of it. So often, church projects like this fall apart when the founder stops working on it — even if they only stop working on it for a couple of months.

But three people, Bill Bennett, Maryellen Kenney, and Ted Schade, stepped forward and said they did not want see Universal Thrift Store close for even one day. With unemployment rising and the economy in freefall, they felt the surrounding community needed Universal Thrift more than ever. So they pitched in and kept the store open.

Their decision was a good one. Due to the economic downturn, sales in thrift stores rose 35% nationwide beginning last fall. Sales at Universal Thrift rose even higher than that; we don’t have seasonally-weighted records for previous years so I can’t give you an exact percentage, but I suspect fall sales at least doubled over the previous year.

Universal Thrift Store also saw an increase in volunteer participation. People in the church and in the surrounding community knew how bad the economy had gotten, and they knew that Universal Thrift was providing an essential service to people in economic need. Donations to Universal Thrift increased, and volunteers began helping out in many ways. Many people began taking a load of donated clothing every Sunday and running it through their washing machine at home, and then bringing it back to church, laundered and folded, the next Sunday. More volunteers began helping out during store hours, both people who come to our worship services and other people whose only exposure to First Unitarian is through their volunteer work with Universal Thrift.

By now, in April, 2009, the pundits tell us that the economy is no longer in freefall, that we have hit bottom, and that some economic signs are actually beginning to look positive. But the pundits also warn us that it is going to be a long, slow recovery, that unemployment will continue to rise for some time, that many families will not see any real improvement in their economic status for some time. Thus many people in the surrounding community will continue to rely on Universal Thrift for some time.

I try to drop in to Universal Thrift once a week to talk with the volunteers to hear how things are going, and just to see what’s going on. The people who shop in Universal Thrift are a diverse bunch: I see people with all different shades and colors of skin; I hear different languages being spoken, English, Spanish, and Portuguese for sure, and sometimes other languages I can’t identify; I see parents with children, single people, older couples, people of all ages. While you can never be sure how much money someone has just by looking at them, I suspect some of the people who come in are comfortably middle class or upper middle class; while some of the people who shop at Universal Thrift (as Bill Bennett has pointed out) put their purchases in a wheeled shopping cart parked on the sidewalk because they don’t have a car. While you can never be certain how much education someone has, some people who come into the store seem as if they have a college education, and others who seem as if they don’t. In short, the wide diversity of the people who shop at Universal Thrift reflects the wide diversity of our church’s neighborhood.

Let me summarize what Universal Thrift does:

Whether someone shops at Universal Thrriftt out of choice or because they can’t afford to shop somewhere else, the store is a resource for the community. Almost as important, Universal Thrift also helps out people who are in dire need and who have no money at all, supplying free clothing and housewares when the need is great. And for all customers, Universal Thrift doesn’t threaten anyone’s personal pride: customers are treated with respect; and most goods are not given away free, thus preventing guilt, shame, and dependency.

Universal Thrift provides a benefit to volunteers, giving an outlet for people to help others through important and meaningful work. And Universal Thrift helps the church: it is now the biggest single fundraising effort in our church, and current projections are that Universal Thrift will gross somewhere around four thousand dollars this fiscal year, twice as much money as the next biggest fundraising effort. We are doing good for others, while doing well for ourselves.

Finally, Universal Thrift recycles perfectly useable clothing and other household goods that might otherwise have gone into the landfill. That is to say, Universal Thrift promotes a culture of sustainability and thrift, in direct opposition to the American consumer culture of unsustainability and waste. In this sense, the phrase “Universal Thrift” is not just the name of the store, it is also an economic manifesto. The goal of Universal Thrift is not to maximize profit at the expense of moral goals; instead, the goal of Universal Thrift is to increase profitability while upholding moral goals like sustainability and human dignity.

I promised you that I would explain something of the religious significance of Universal Thrift. And given who I am, the best way I know how to do that is to retell a story that is originally attributed to Jesus of Nazareth — who was himself an outspoken critic of the economic problems of his day.

Here’s the story Jesus told, as it comes down to us in the Gospel of Thomas, chapter 65:

“A person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers, so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so the farmers would give him the vineyard’s crop. They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master. His master said, ‘Perhaps they didn’t know him.’ He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one as well. Then the master sent his son and said, ‘Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.’ Because the farmers knew that he was the heir to the vineyard, they grabbed him and killed him. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”

In the standard Christian interpretation, this story is an allegory that has something to do with some kind of foreshadowing of Jesus getting executed by the Romans on trumped-up political charges. But forget the standard Christian interpretation: it takes a lot of work to turn this story into an allegory of Jesus’s execution.

It makes much more sense to take this story at face value. Taken at face value, this story is an accurate description of the economic situation during Jesus’s time. There were many people who were tenant farmers — we used to call them sharecroppers here in the United States. Jesus’s original listeners would have know that the tenant farmers were badly exploited by wealthy landowners — just as we know that sharecroppers here in the United States were badly exploited by landowners. Implicit in the knowledge that the tenant farmers were being badly exploited was the knowledge that in order to make any kind of living, they in turn would have had to exploit the land, farming it unsustainably so that they could hope grow just enough extra to allow them to provide for their own families.

If we take this story at face value, as a story about morally corrupt exploitation of tenant farmers and of the land, we can see how the different characters are driven to act by their economic circumstances. The farmers deplete the land, beat up the slaves sent to collect the crop, and kill the landowner’s son. The slaves, forced to act as the agent of the exploitative landowner, are essentially helpless and get beaten almost to death. As for the wealthy landowner, he seems to me to be morally despicable simply because he is so clueless. He obviously has no real understanding of the extent to which he exploited the tenant farmers. He doesn’t get how unjust it is that he should sit back and do nothing, and reap all the benefits of the tenant farmers’ hard work; that is to say, he doesn’t understand that exploitation is bad.

And the rich landowner has no excuse for not understanding that exploitation is bad. Jesus of Nazareth, who told this story, was a Jew, and his listeners were Jews, and we can assume that the rich landowner in the story is a Jew. As a Jew, the rich landowner should know what is said in the Torah, in the book of Leviticus [Lev. 25.1-7], where the God of the Israelites commanded them that they shall periodically let the land lie fallow, that is, commanded them to not over-exploit the land. And when the God of the Israelites prohibits more than just exploitation, their God is also prohibiting wasteful, unsustainable practices. (Yes, the God of the Israelites was an early environmentalist.)

Not only that, but later in the book of Leviticus [25.23], the God of the Israelites commanded them as follows: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” In other words, God owns all the land, and all human beings are nothing more than tenant farmers. So that rich landowner is violating his God’s commandments in at least three ways: first, he is exploiting the land; second, he thinks he owns what really only his God owns; and third, he is living wastefully and unsustainably.

We are not contemporaries of Jesus of Nazareth, and probably most of us here would not consider ourselves to be good observant Jews who are obliged to follow the commandments of the God of the Israelites. But although we may not observe the specifics of Jewish law, we are inheritors of the long tradition that began with the Torah, was interpreted by Rabbi Jesus, and lives on with us today as deeply-felt moral teachings. As a religious people, we know that exploitation is morally wrong: we know that we should not exploit either the natural environment, or other people. As a religious people, we know that living a wasteful and unsustainable lifestyle is morally wrong: we know that we should promote thrift, and an economy based on sustainability.

The religious significance of our Universal Thrift Store should now become more clear. Obviously, we can’t change the whole American consumer economy all by ourselves. But what we can do is try to create moral alternatives to the wasteful, unsustainable, morally wrong American consumer lifestyle. That is precisely what we are doing with Universal Thrift Store. We are running a socially-conscious business venture that is both profitable and moral. Our business model for Universal Thrift generates income, and promotes a thrift-based, sustainable economic alternative. The very existence of Universal Thrift Store serves as a gentle but effective critique of the American consumer economy, showing we can generate income sustainably, and without exploitation.

Let me very briefly outline the business theory behind what we’re doing with Universal Thrift. Obviously, any business tries to generate value — value for the customer, and value for the business owner. But what do we mean by value? Is value to be measured solely in terms of the monetary profit that is generated? Or when we talk about “value,” do we also include sustainability, morality, effectiveness, and equity?

The way we run Universal Thrift, we want to generate value that includes sustainability, morality, effectiveness, and equity. And when we generate value, that value accrues, not to individuals (although many individuals do get value out of Thrift Store), but rather to a non-profit organization with a mission to further spread value through society.

Universal Thrift is a form of social entrepreneurship. We aim to maximize income for our church, while also maximizing benefit to the customers and to the wider society. We promote sustainability by promoting thrift, provide an alternative to the throw-away society, while at the same time we make money. We aim to produce equity by helping those with excess goods donate them to help generate income for the church, while also reducing the waste that comes with manufacturing too many consumer goods. We hope to generate profit while also carrying out larger social goals. This is why I call Universal Thrift an example of social entrepreneurship, because it combines a for-profit business model with a non-profit morality.

In closing, I should say that I believe that Universal Thrift could get significantly larger. I believe we could generate lots more income for the church — I think twelve thousand dollars in annual sales could be within reach within a couple of years. I believe we could help spread the idea of social entrepreneurship more widely in our community — as more volunteers learn the principles of social entrepreneurship through involvement with Universal Thrift, they can spread those principles more widely. Some people might even find a way to become social entrepreneurs who start new projects in such a way that they create jobs for themselves. I believe further innovation could grow out of Universal Thrift, innovations that will further the goals of sustainability while benefiting the wider community.

I don’t claim that socially entrepreneurial projects like Universal Thrift will save civilization as we know it. But I do know that these projects have the potential to turn us away from an economics with a moral void at its center; and turn us towards an economics of universal thrift, human dignity, and sustainability. And so may the phrase “universal thrift” become an integral part of a new, morally sound, economic manifesto.

A New Revolution

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.

Sermon — “A New Revolution”

You know what today is, don’t you? It’s the nineteenth of April, and on this exact day back in 1775, the colonists of Massachusetts offered the first armed and organized resistance to the British Empire. The American Revolution began on this day. And so it seems like a good day to talk about a new, emerging revolution: the ecojustice revolution.

The ecojustice revolution concerns one of the most important moral issues of our time: the environmental disasters being caused by global climate change. There is no longer any doubt that global climate change is real, that some of its effects are already irreversible, and that it is caused by human beings. I know, I know, the radio personality and entertainer Rush Limbaugh says that global climate change isn’t real and isn’t caused by humans; but we can balance him against Stephen Colbert, and since it is a well-known mathematical fact that two entertainers cancel each other out, leaving a null set, we can dismiss both of them without a pang. Global climate change is real, and it is happening now.

To my mind, the most important thing about the ecojustice revolution is that is provides a way out of helplessness. I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty helpless in the face of global climate change. It seems like something that is pretty much beyond my control. I do what I can to reduce my personal environmental impact — so for example rather than flying, I’ll be taking the train to the annual denominational meeting at the end of June, because train travel puts out about half the carbon of jet travel. We turn our thermostat down to sixty degrees at home, and we replace conventional light bulbs with compact fluorescents. We do all those good things, yet I know that’s not nearly enough.

Obviously, we can do more than change light bulbs. Some of us will get involved in political action. Those in the sciences can work on the science of global climate change. Artists and musicians and writers can create art and music and writing that helps people understand global climate change. And there is a very important task we can take on here in our church. Here in our church, we are concerned (among other things) with morality and ethics, and so one of our contributions can be to examine the moral and ethical questions that are entwined with global climate change. A serious examination of moral and ethical questions can lead us into a powerful sense of knowing what right action must be. And I’d like to do some of that this morning with you: I’d like to examine three moral and ethical questions pertaining to global climate change, so that we might begin to know what right action might be.

The first moral question that I’d like to ask is the most difficult question about exploitation. And to ask this question, I have to fill in some background information.

To begin with, exploitation is not necessarily a bad thing. All organisms exploit their environment. In one of my favorite books, Some Adaptations of Marsh-Nesting Blackbirds (OK, it’s not really one of my favorite books), by the ornithologist Gordon H. Orians, I find this statement: “…a predator may exploit its prey or change the behavior of the prey so as to alter the encounter rates or capture probabilities.” Red-winged Blackbirds, those pretty little black birds with the bright red wing patches, are actually ruthless predators who exploit their immediate environment in order to ensure their own personal survival, and the survival of their babies. They seek out patches in the marsh with the densest concentrations of insects, so they can increase their odds of capturing enough insects to feed themselves, and feed their babies. Gordon Orian creates a mathematical formula for this, where the bird’s energy intake from the insects it eats is dependent on the time spent foraging and the time spent in traveling, as well as the energy expended in foraging. Red-winged Blackbirds have to exploit the insect resources of the marsh where they live so they take in more energy than they put out.

That’s what all animals do. The woodchucks who eat everything in your garden are just trying to maximize their energy intake while minimizing the energy they spend in foraging — and your garden is so attractive because you lay out all those nice young succulent plants so the woodchuck doesn’t have to expend much energy to exploit the plant resources of your garden. Because the woodchuck can exploit your garden so efficiently, he or she gets big and fat and has lots of babies and generally thrives. This gets at another basic principle: the organisms that are most effective at exploiting the resources around them are the organisms that are going to survive and thrive and reproduce like mad.

So when we say that human beings are exploiting the resources of earth, in a way it’s hard to criticize us human beings for doing so. Of course we exploit the resources around us as effectively as possible, and of course we do so to the maximum possible extent. Such exploitation is literally a part of our biological make-up. We are the product of thousands of generations of earlier human beings, each generation of which got a little better at exploiting the resources around us. Exploitation is bred into our bones.

However, at a certain point exploitation moves out of the realm of biology and into the realm of morality and ethics. It’s one thing when a woodchuck exploits the world around it by eating your garden in order to enhance its reproductive success; it’s another thing altogether when a corporation exploits the world around it by dumping PCBs into New Bedford harbor in order to enhance its profits. The woodchuck eats your garden so that it can live; but the corporation destroys New Bedford harbor and endangers the health of all organisms in the vicinity, not so that it can live, but rather so that it can make far more money than it needs for survival, all at the expense of other living beings. We don’t call the woodchuck immoral for eating your garden; but we do call the corporation immoral when it dumps PCBs into the harbor.

It is this second type of exploitation that we call immoral. And we call it immoral for at least two reasons.

First of all, there’s the biological reason. Human beings are social, tribal animals: despite the American myth of individualism, human beings have always required other human beings in order to survive. Babies and children require the help of lots of adults — not just their parents — in order to survive to adulthood. And adult human beings are essentially cooperative animals who need a tribe in order to survive — we are not designed to fight off saber-toothed tigers on our own, no more than we can survive today without relying on farmers, software engineers, sewage treatment plant operators, and so on. So it is that when an individual, or a small group of individuals, exploits other human beings for personal gain, we can call that individual or that small group immoral. They are immoral because they are going against human biology, they are going against natural law.

There’s a second reason why this kind of behavior is immoral. As a religious community, we uphold idealistic notions of what human society could be. Jesus of Nazareth taught us that if we would love our neighbors as ourselves, we could create a heaven here on earth. Gotama Buddha taught us that if we could get rid of greed and self-delusion, we could end human suffering. Confucius taught us that if we could maintain a well-ordered social structure where we live for the sake of others as much as we live for ourselves, we could create an ideal world. Whichever religious tradition we choose to learn from teaches us that moral behavior requires us to think of other human beings; requires us to transcend selfishness and self-interest. So it is that when an individual, or a small group of individuals, exploits other human beings for personal gain, we call that individual or that small group immoral. They are immoral because they are being selfish, they are going against religious law.

It should be obvious by now that global climate change is caused by immoral violations of natural law and religious law. When a small group of human beings decides to dump PCBs into New Bedford harbor because they’ll make more money if they don’t have to clean up the toxic waste, that’s both a violation of natural law — by denying the reality that all human beings are interdependent — and it’s a violation of religious law — by allowing their selfishness to overwhelm the requirement to love their neighbors as themselves. Thus we call this kind of behavior “immoral exploitation.”

Here we encounter an interesting point. From a moral viewpoint, this economic exploitation of the natural world looks exactly like the economic exploitation of persons based on race and racism. Racism in America started out as slavery, where people of African descent were enslaved by some people of European descent, so that the people of European descent could make lots of money without having to pay wages; morally, this is exactly parallel to corporations dumping PCBs into New Bedford harbor so they can make lots of money.

Racial exploitation and the exploitation of the environment that has led to global climate change stem from the same kind of immoral exploitation: a violation of natural law through a denial of human cooperation; and a violation of religious law through a denial of loving our neighbors as ourselves. And you will not be surprised to learn that in fact persons of color are more likely to be adversely affected by environmental disasters — for example, persons of color are more likely than whites to live near toxic waste sites; in New Orleans, persons of color were more likely to live in the low-lying areas most likely to be flooded.

Now here’s where it gets really interesting. If we want to understand the moral roots of global climate change — that is to say, if we want to understand the moral problem of exploitation — one of the best places to start is by engaging in conversations with people who have been fighting racism. I have gained some of my deepest understanding of how immoral exploitation works through reading African American writers like Frederick Douglass and Cornel West; and what I have learned from them, I have been able to apply directly to environmental work.

As we try to solve the problem of global climate change, environmentalists will benefit from building alliances with people who are solving the problem of racism and racial exploitation, because both these problems stem from the same moral issue of exploitation. The fundamental moral point here is that resources should not be controlled by the greedy few. This is one of the key insights of the ecojustice revolution: that racism and environmentalism are inextricably intertwined; and therefore, those of us who are working to end racism are natural allies to those of us who are working to end global climate change.

I spent a great deal of time on the moral question of exploitation, because I believe it lies at the center of the ecojustice revolution. Now I’d like to turn for just a moment to the second moral question pertaining to global climate change: and that is the moral question of constant acceleration.

Let me explain what I mean by constant acceleration. Our economic system requires constant economic growth. If America’s gross domestic product doesn’t rise every year, then we are in the soup. That’s what’s happening right now, in the current economic crisis: our economy is contracting, and that means that the unemployment rate is rising, and that means that people are out of work, and that means a rise in human misery and suffering.

Of course I’m over-simplifying here. I’m no economist, and I’m aware that the roots of the economic crisis are more complicated than what I’ve just outlined. Nevertheless, we keep hearing over and over again that an increase in consumer confidence and spending is one of the things that will put an end to the economic crisis: the more we spend, the better off we are. And we all accept this as normal — it’s so much a part of the political and social landscape of America that we don’t even question it.

From a moral point of view, this is simply crazy. From a moral point of view, increasing your consumer spending is not the main purpose in life. From a moral point of view, we are supposed to be living a good life; from a religious point of view, we are supposed to be doing our small parts in bringing about heaven here on earth. At best, consumer spending has little to do with morality, so that buying a new video game is an action with no moral component at all. At worst, however, excessive consumer spending is a moral nightmare because it puts energy and resources into useless things like pink lawn flamingos; energy and resources that could have been put towards solving the problem of global climate change, or improving the lives of the billions of people who are in poverty.

Today, our society is driven by a sense that we need to keep on accelerating the pace of the economy. This ever-increasing acceleration of the economy and of everything uses more and more energy and releases more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Sadly, we are seeing right now that when the acceleration stops, millions of human beings are plunged into misery. But this ever-increasing acceleration has no real moral purpose. It just reminds us that today’s American society seems to lack any moral purpose, because our only purpose is to accelerate the pace of the economy regardless of human misery.

This brings us finally to the third moral question pertaining to global climate change. And that is the moral question about how we can lessen human misery.

That’s the true moral purpose of technology: to lessen human misery. If we develop efficient transportation networks, we can guard against famine; when there’s not enough rain in North Dakota to grow food, we can ship food in from California. If we improve public health through improved technologies like vaccinations and sewage treatment plants, we can reduce death from horrible diseases like smallpox and cholera. And if we improve access to information through the printed word and through the Internet, we can help create democratic societies in which all persons are treated as equal.

That’s what technology was supposed to do for us. And in many ways, technology has succeeded; at least, it has succeeded in a few parts of the world, such as North America outside of the inner cities. The problem is that the goal of lessening human misery through technology got transmogrified into a goal of constant acceleration. Instead of working to lessen human misery, we somehow got sidetracked into believing that what we really needed was more pink lawn flamingos, more disposable plastic bags, and more smiley-faces. I have to tell you that as much as I enjoy pink lawn flamingoes, they really do nothing to lessen human misery.

Once we realize this — once we realize that a critical goal of human society should be to lessen human misery — it can change everything for us. The ecojustice revolution takes this one step further: by putting a check on immoral exploitation, we can both lessen human misery, and (if you will) lessen the misery of other living beings and of the natural world in general.

Once we have determined the moral goal towards which we strive, once we have a moral direction, a moral compass, we no longer have to feel quite so helpless in the face of environmental disaster. Global climate change will increase human misery, so our moral compass tells us that global climate change is morally wrong and must be curtailed. When we then realize that people who are already poor and oppressed and marginalized are going to bear the brunt of global climate change — for example, soon a huge amount of Bangladesh will be at risk of ocean flooding — our moral compass tells us that we must address this problem as one of our priorities. And by linking human misery to the misery of other living beings, by understanding that all immoral exploitation comes from the same root, we begin to understand that what we do to lessen human misery will have the effect of lessening the misery of other living beings — if we can keep the Arctic ice cap from melting, not only will we help Bangladeshis survive, we will also help polar bears survive.

What lies at the root of all our efforts are simple religious truths: to lessen misery, to end exploitation, and to create heaven here on earth. To some this might sound hopelessly idealistic; but to us these are ideals that fill us with hope for the future.