Step by Step

I got curious about the song “Step by Step,” a song that Waldemar Hille and Pete Seeger put together — it’s hymn number 157 in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal. Hille found a poem in the “Constitution and Laws for the Government and Guidance of the American Miners’ Association” (1864), and he and Seeger made a song out of it. But Seeger said they changed some of the words, so I got curious about the original wording. I found a digitized copy of the poem online, and it reads like this:

Step by step, the longest march
Can be won, can be won,
Single stones will form an arch
One by one, one by one,
And by union, what we will
Can be all accomplished still.
Drops of water turn a mill—
Singly none, singly none.

I decided I liked the original words better than Hille and Seeger’s rewrite — the original second stanza feels more positive to me. Then I realized I’ve always disliked Hille and Seeger’s tune; it sounds like a dirge, better suited to a funeral than to a union marching song.

Worst of all, Hille and Seeger slapped a copyright on their song. Maybe while they were alive they would have given permission to use it freely, but they’re both dead now. Besides, who wants to have to write for permission to sing the song?

So here’s my version of this grand old union song. It has the original public domain words, paired with a tune licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License:

Click on the image above for a PDF.

Solving the Silicon Valley housing crisis four people at a time

The title of a recent San Francisco Chronicle article says it all:

He wanted to let homeless neighbors sleep in cars outside his church. It launched a two-year battle.

The “he” in the title is my new UU hero, Chris Kan. Chris grew up in San Francisco, and after a stint teaching at UC Santa Cruz, moved to Silicon Valley to do cancer research. He also joined the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA), where he got involved in an effort to allow car dwellers to park safely in the church parking lot. I’m proud to say that UUCPA is my congregation, too, and I’m proud that many of us supported Chris in this two year battle — showing up at City Council meetings, working behind the scenes with community stakeholders, coordinating with Move Mountain View, a local nonprofit, to provide support services, arranging to have a Porta-Potty on site, making sure we could provide free wifi to car dwellers, and on and on — but Chris was the one who provided clear and steady leadership through this agonizing two-year process.

Sadly, we all knew that UUCPA’s permit application would take forever to get through the city of Palo Alto. The city is notorious for its torturous permitting process. And during the application process we suspected we’d hear comments like, “We don’t want those people living near us.” Those are the things you have to expect when you propose any solution to Silicon Valley’s housing crisis: the city government will take forever to approve the project, and some city residents will talk about “those people.”

Admittedly, we were a little surprised when Stevenson House, the subsidized elderly housing project next door to our church, filed a last minute appeal to block our permit this summer. But it all turned out all right in the end. You can read about the appeal in this news article — the reporter quotes Grace Mah, president of the Stevenson House Board, as saying the Board wanted background checks. True, some safe parking programs do require background checks, but our local county opposes background checks because they raise another barrier to housing. Fortunately, the Stevenson House Board quickly changed its mind, and the next time they met they voted to drop the appeal. (That installment of the story is reported here.) I’m a big supporter of Stevenson House’s mission, and I appreciate the fact that their board, after doing their due diligence, ultimately supported our safe parking program. We’re grateful to have a good neighbor like Stevenson House, a group that’s also committed to solving the Silicon Valley housing crisis.

The big problem is how badly local city governments are handling any proposed solution to the Silicon Valley housing crisis. As Chris Kan told the Chronicle reporter: “They basically treated [the safe parking program] the same way you would if I was building a condo building…. [but] it’s literally a parking lot with a trash can.” I suppose you could do some incisive social analysis of why local city governments throw up barriers to any solution to the Silicon Valley housing crisis. However, I’ve given up on incisive social analysis, preferring to pour my energy into supporting people like Chris Kan, who are actually out there solving the problem. As I said, Chris is my new UU hero.

Update: NBC Bay Area covers this story here. Here’s an excerpt from their story — I particularly like Amber Stine’s comment at the end:

“A board member at the senior living facility next door [i.e., Grace Mah of Stevenson House] asked for a review…. She eventually dropped the request after Kan and other church members explained the program…. ‘The pushback is fine. Some of it is necessary. It creates conversation. I think it’s the outcome that matters more than anything,’ said Amber Stime, executive director of Move Mountain View.”

Many conservative Christians are appalled by anti-vaxxers

Steve Hassen, a conservative Christian, has written a blog post that explains why conservative Christians should get vaccinated. The blog post is based on a podcast interview with Professor Warren Throckmorton, a psychologist. Here’s an excerpt from the blog post:

“I asked Throckmorton for his view on the COVID-19 pandemic and what he thinks about vaccination? He and his family are vaccinated. When I asked him about Christianity and science, he told me Biblical sources provide believers guidance. He pointed out that Timothy, a disciple of St. Paul, had a stomach ailment. He was not advised to pray or just have faith but to take a little wine (that is, treat the ailment). Luke, who wrote one of the Gospels, was himself a physician. God gave us incredible gifts: our minds, intelligence, and curiosity. Certainly, we are meant to use our minds and think and not allow irrational fears to cause harm and death.”

Hassen covers a lot of ground in his blog post. He takes on Trump: “How can anyone [who’s] religious think God is using Donald Trump?” He explains how science and conservative Christian faith are compatible. He critiques Christian nationalism and dominionism, two of the biggest threats to U.S. democracy today. And he touches on the problem of narcissism in the pastors of mega-churches (some of what he says there reminds me of one or two people who used to be ministers of some of our largest UU congregations).

Hassen reminds me of the conservative Christians I used to know back in the day: people whose intelligence, morals, and ethics I held in great respect, even while disagreeing with them on some theological points. Unitarian Universalists who like to demonize white evangelical conservative Christians might want to read this post, and expand their horizons a little bit. If we’re going to stop the threat to democracy represented by QAnon and Trumpism, we need all the allies we can get.

The big divide in U.S. religion today

U.S. Catholic bishops have voted 155 to 55 (with 6 abstentions) to deny holy communion to U.S. politicians who support abortion rights. Elected officials who openly support the death penalty will still be allowed to receive communion, even though the church’s catechism states, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” Elected officials who deny climate change will still be able to receive communion, even though Pope Francis has said, “We need to act decisively to put an end to all emissions of greenhouse gases by mid-century at the very latest, and to do even more than that.” This is typical of U.S. religion today.

I have come to believe that the big divide in U.S. religion these days is actually politics, not theology. Do you support the Republican party line, or the Democratic party line? — that’s how the U.S. religious divide is defined. The U.S. Catholic bishops voting to deny communion to politicians who support abortion rights, yet taking no action on politicians who support the death penalty, may not seem logically consistent. Nevertheless, their stance is entirely consistent with Republican politics.

I’m pretty sure that Unitarian Universalists suffer from the same problem, on the other side of the political divide. Unitarian Universalism is doing its best to stand up against racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism (to some extent), and other forms of systemic injustice. Classism, however, is mostly dismissed or ignored within Unitarian Universalism. Nor does Unitarian Universalism engage in systematic critique of capitalism. Our stance may not be logically consistent, but it is entirely consistent Democratic politics.

Therefore, fellow Unitarian Universalists, before you speak scornfully of the Catholic bishops, first reflect on how Unitarian Universalism hews so closely to the Democratic party line. Instead of speaking of another religion with scorn, we might instead reflect on the words of a wise ancient Jewish teacher who said, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” In other words, I do hope we Unitarian Universalists don’t become merely a special interest group of the Democratic party.

Why some white people need to worry about U.S. policing

I recently finished reading Howard Zinn’s memoir You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. In the chapter “Growing Up Class Conscious,” Zinn talks about going to his first political demonstration in Times Square, New York City, when he was in his late teens:

“In the midst of the crowd, banners were unfurled, and people, perhaps a thousand or more, formed into lines carrying banners and signs and chanting slogans about peace and justice and a dozen other causes of the day. I was exciting. And non-threatening….”

Except that expressing such political ideas was not exactly non-threatening to the powers-that-be:

“We heard the sound of sirens and I thought there must be a fire somewhere, and accident of some kind. But then I heard screams and saw hundreds of policemen, mounted on horses and on foot, charging into the lines of marchers, smashing people with their clubs. I was astonished, bewildered. This was America, a country where, whatever its faults, people could speak, write, assemble, demonstrate without fear.”

Zinn quickly learned that the freedom to assemble and demonstrate without fear is not actually a right for working class whites:

“As I absorbed all this, as my thoughts raced, all in a few seconds, I was spun around by a very large man, who seized my shoulder and hit me very hard. I only saw him as a blur. I didn’t know if it was a club or a fist or a blackjack, but I was knocked unconscious.”

This was a key moment in Zinn’s political awakening:

“Those young Communist on the block [where Zinn lived] were right! The state and its police were not neutral referees in a society of contending interests. They were on the side of the rich and powerful.”

U.S. Communists were wrong about a number of things, including the Soviet Union, but they were absolutely right about the police and the state. No wonder Communism was made functionally illegal in the U.S. during the 1950s, just a few years after Zinn’s political awakening.

We’re seeing this play out in Congress right now. The people who stormed the Capitol on January 6 did so at the behest of the rich and powerful. The Democrats in the House of Representatives have proposed a bipartisan inquiry into the storming of the Capitol, but the majority of Republicans in the House voted against it. (Not that I trust the Democrats to institute an objective inquiry — they too are the rich and powerful, and their goal is mostly to score political points off their equally rich and powerful rivals.) My liberal and progressive friends like to say: if the people who stormed the Capitol had been black, they would have been stopped pretty quickly. But it’s equally true that if the people who stormed the Capitol had been working class whites, or homeless people, or Communists, they would have been stopped just as quickly.

If you’re an upper middle class white person — these days, that means a white person with a college degree — you probably don’t have worry about police. But three quarters of white people in the U.S. are not upper middle class. True, they don’t have to worry about policing in the same way as non-white people — but as Howard Zinn discovered in the late 1940s, the police are most definitely not on their side.

One final, obvious, point: the problem does not lie with individual police officers. The police officers I’ve know, and know, are courageous, kind, and dedicated public servants. The rich and powerful would love for us to believe that the problem can be solved by disciplining individual police officers. But the problem can only be solved when the state no longer protects the rich and powerful at the expense of non-white and working class people.

A divided nation

The United States is divided so badly that it’s hard to believe. My liberal and progressive friends blame it all on the Republicans. Not surprisingly, the conservatives blame it all on the liberals. No one seems to listen to anyone but the people they agree with any more.

I’ve been blaming this unhealthy division on social media. But in his new book How Rights Went Wrong, Jamal Greene, professor of law at Columbia Law School, argues that the U.S. Supreme Court, and lower courts, are also to blame:

“…The job of the courts in a pluralistic democracy isn’t to please their base. It’s to work to resolve conflicts, to ratchet them down rather than up. Courts should be reminding us of what we have in common. They should be granting just enough constitutional leverage on each side that we have no choice but to sit down across from each other at the table, to look each other in the eye, and to speak to each other….” How Rights Went Wrong: : Why Our Obsession with Rights Is Tearing America Apart (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), p. 163

Instead, Supreme Court decisions have become a zero-sum game, with clear winners and clear losers. Rather than trying to work people we disagree with, to find some common ground, we just want to eliminate them. As a result, progressives now hope that some of the conservative justices on the Supreme Court will die so Joe Biden can appoint some more progressive justices. Conversely, conservatives hope that the conservative justices can live another four years.

Unitarian Universalist congregations are supposed to support the democratic process in our congregations, and in society at large. But these days, most Unitarian Universalists have unthinkingly bought into the anti-democratic notion that Supreme Court decisions are a zero-sum game. Maybe it’s time for us Unitarian Universalists to reflect seriously on Jamal Greene’s thoughts — maybe we need to stop hoping that conservative Supreme Court justices will die, and start thinking about how to strengthen democracy.

Seat at the table

I’m following the story of how workers in an Amazon warehouse in Alabama are currently voting whether or not to join a union. The management of early twenty-first century Amazon warehouses sound a lot like the management of early twentieth century cotton mills: speed up work until the workers break, fire anyone who raises safety concerns, do anything to keep the unions out.

A BBC article on this story quotes Peter Romer-Friedman, a civil rights lawyer:

“The key question in America at the moment is are we going to have fair treatment of workers in the businesses that will dominate our future? … The concept that workers get a seat at the table is a radical concept for people in Silicon Valley.”

In fact, the assumption that workers should not have a seat at the table is a cornerstone of the Silicon Valley business model. Tech firms have been leaders at offshoring, outsourcing, using “contractors,” and requiring their few actual employees to put in 10-12 hour days as a matter of course. So why would they give workers a seat at the table?

The problem for workers: if you don’t have a seat at the table, then you’re on the menu.

A historical materialist looks at the “Jericho March”

There’s no doubt that today’s armed insurrection was driven by white supremacy. The well-publicized photo of a white man smiling as he carried a Confederate battle flag through the Capitol building makes that clear, if we hadn’t already figured it out.

There’s also no doubt that today’s treasonous actions were driven by the idolatrous heresy known as Christian nationalism. This New Religious Movement — maybe we should use the pejorative term, and call it a cult — followers of this cult of Christian nationalism believe that their god is somehow specially aligned with the United States.

The white supremacy, and the heretical idolatry, helped drive these white terrorists. But I think economic desperation is also driving the broader movement that thinks the election was stolen from their populist hero Donald Trump. There’s too much economic desperation, and that desperation is increasing as the pandemic drags on. There’s a growing number of people who can’t work from home, whose businesses have gone under, whose jobs have disappeared. The divide between the haves and the have-nots has been getting bigger for decades; the pandemic has accelerated this trend.

If we’re going to turn our country away from the treasonous armed terrorists, we absolutely have to address white supremacy. We absolutely have to address the idolatry of the cult known as Christian nationalism. And we also must deal with the economic desperation in the U.S.

Let’s hope today will be the end of Trump’s influence. But even if Trump goes away, the underlying problems will still be there. We have learned that white supremacy, idolatry, and economic desperation are a toxic mix, and we must address all three.

Downside to decline

The report by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Institutional Change puts it starkly: if Unitarian Universalists don’t figure out how to become less white, we will die out (because: demographics).

Fair enough. But we’re seeing rise of the “nones,” people who have no religious affiliation, and so maybe it’s time for organized religion to die. If it’s time for organized religion to die, why should we care?

In a recent article titled “White Christian America built a faith-based safety net. What happens when it’s gone?”, Religion News Service has an answer to this question.

“The growth of the so-called nones doesn’t mean that belief is disappearing, but ‘loosely organized spirituality’ among people who have few ties to each other lacks precisely the organization that can marshal thousands of key volunteers.

“‘They don’t congregate,’ [Brad] Fulton [associate professor of nonprofit management at Indiana University] said. ‘And that is the key thing.’

“Religious congregations, on the other hand, he said, ‘ask people to give once a week, week after week. They tell people about volunteer opportunities once a week, week after week. There is no other social institution like them.’

“In some ways, the infrastructure of religion matters more than the spiritual part. The so-called nones, at least for now, can’t replace that.

“‘There is some upside to organized religion that has very little to do with religion,’ he said. ‘They have a great mechanism to bring people together. It is really hard to identify an organized secular equivalent.'”

This is not far from what Unitarian theologian and sociologist James Luther Adams said in the mid-twentieth century: congregations function as voluntary associations. And congregations provide real and tangible benefits to society.

Another point worth noticing here: Fulton, a scholar of management, says that what congregations do — that no one else does — is to congregate, “week after week.” The loose networks created by social media (so far at least) don’t do this, so unfortunately we can’t expect social media networks like Black Lives Matter to fill this void.

“The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump”

A group of Christian evangelicals have published a book titled “The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump.” In an interview with Religion News Service, the editor, Ronald J. Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, answers the question, “So what is the spiritual danger of Donald Trump?”

“I would summarize it this way [Sider says]: Trump lies constantly. He has repeatedly demonstrated adulterous sexual behavior. He fails to make justice for the poor a concern in his policies. He constantly stokes white racism. His response to COVID-19 was dreadfully weak in the first couple of months. His position on climate change is simply disastrous. And his constant attacks on the fake media undermine democracy.”

Most Unitarian Universalists don’t like Donald Trump, but rarely do we speak about why he is a spiritual danger; mostly we focus on why he’s a political danger. I’m obviously not an evangelical Christian, and therefore not the target audience for Sider’s book or his remarks, but I think this summary of Trump as a spiritual danger is spot-on.

Another interesting point Sider makes in this interview is in response to the question of why white evangelicals supported Trump so strongly in 2016. A part of Sider’s response is particularly relevant to Unitarian Universalism:

“It’s partly because, let’s be honest, there’s a left wing fundamentalism as well as the right wing fundamentalism. And there’s a part of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which is really, I think, hostile to Christianity and certainly to evangelicalism. White evangelicals feel that, and don’t like it.”

This describes too many Unitarian Universalists: we can indeed come across as left wing fundamentalists who refuse to acknowledge that intelligent people can disagree with us on religious issues. For example, there are Unitarian Universalists who are convinced that global climate change is one of the top two or three most pressing issues facing humanity, who claim they’ll do everything they can to arrest global climate change, yet who are condescending and dismissive when they hear the term “creation care.”

There is no doubt that Donald Trump represents a pressing spiritual danger: he’s a liar, a racist, a misogynist, and he’s going to let the world go up in flames. It would be wise for us Unitarian Universalists to figure out how we can work effectively with all those who want to stop this clear and present spiritual danger.