“Water is sacred”

In an essay titled “Jain Ecology,” Satish Kumar records a “water sutra” taught to him by his mother:

Waste no water
Don’t ever spill it
Water is precious
Water is sacred
The way you use water is the measure of you
Water is witness
Water is the judge
Your wisdom rests on your careful use of water.
(Satish Kumar, “Jain Ecology,” Jainism and Ecology, ed. Christopher Key Chapple [Harvard Univ., 2002], p. 187)

This sutra expresses an ethic that is removed from Western thinking. Most Westerners would agree that humans are sacred, in some sense of the word”sacred.” Some Westerners would argue that animals are sacred. Maybe a few Westerners would contend that plants and fungi are sacred. But as for inanimate objects — or bacteria, archaea, and eukaryota aside from plants, animals, and fungi — I think only a very tiny minority of Westerners would consider these to be sacred.

If water, earth, and air are sacred, it would much easier to advocate for treating them with respect. But since they are not sacred in the West, then if you want to protect them from pollution or wastefulness, you wind up arguing from a selfish point of view — we should protect water, earth, and air because to do so is to protect our own health.

This represents a big difference in the ethics of ecology.

Finding common ground

In the May, 2022, issue of “St. Anthony Messenger,” a publication of Franciscan Media (Roman Catholic), there was an article by Mark P. Shea titled “I’d Like To Say: Stop Weaponizing the Eucharist.” For those of us who take a pro-choice position, this article contains some observations that we could perhaps agree with. Like this:

“Our [U.S.] abortion policy is, in fact, a triumph of libertarian thinking and the free market. Women can abort or not as they wish…. What drive abortion is not the state but economic pressure. Abortion is primarily pursued as an economic relief valve by women who feel they cannot afford to raise a child. The number one abortifacient in the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute, is poverty.”

Those of us in the pro-choice camp who are uncomfortable with libertarianism can find a lot to agree with in this statement. Obviously, we want to include other, less common, reasons for abortion (rape, non-viable foetus, extreme birth defects, etc.). But if we want to work towards finding common ground in a polarized political landscape, this would be a good starting point — provide adequate economic support for all pregnant women, and adequate economic support for all families with babies and children and teenagers. The libertarian, free-market approach to raising children is not working.

To prove his point, Shea goes on to note:

“There came a precipitous drop in abortion rates in the 1990s. The reason had nothing to do with the [U.S. Supreme] Court. It was due to Clinton-era policies that took economic pressure to abort off lower-income women. Far from ‘promoting’ abortion, the goal during the Clinon years was, in the words of the administration, to make abortion ‘safe, legal, and rare.’ And the numbers show that Clinton’s policies, in fact, achieved the pro-life goal of reducing abortion.’

I am no fan of Bill Clinton, or his administration. But I agree with Shea that this Clinton-era policy was a good one. This could serve as a common policy goal that could be supported by pro-life and pro-choice advocates together.

Unfortunately, now that Roe has been struck down, I think there may be less incentive for pro-life advocates to work together with us to develop public policies that support families with children. Nevertheless, I feel this is an area where we should be working hard to find common ground in our polarized country. I hope we can make the case that libertarian, free-market policies are not good for children, regardless of the legal status of abortion.

People who no longer like capitalism

On Saturday, Pope Francis spoke to a gathering of one thousand people under the age of 35. He said, in part:

“‘The first market economy was born in the 13th century in Europe through daily contact with Franciscan Friars, who were friends of the first merchants. That economy certainly created wealth but it did not despise poverty,’ said [Pope] Francis. ‘Our capitalism, instead, wants to help the poor but does not respect them. … We do not have to love poverty,’ he added. ‘On the contrary, we need to combat it, above all, by creating work, dignified work.’”

We can argue about details of his interpretation of the history of capitalism. Nevertheless, Pope Francis is getting at something important — capitalism today despises people who are poor. Today’s capitalist Titans do everything they can to reduce the number of people they have to hire and make the remaining workers work insanely long hours. Then they speak with disdain of people who can’t find a job. In San Francisco, the rich young Tech Titans want the city to get unhoused people off the streets so they, the Tech Titans, don’t have to be confronted with the tent encampments that they help create.

Pope Francis was wise to make this address to a crowd of people under the age of 35. Pollsters have shown that the younger you are, the more likely you are to distrust capitalism. Among young adults, half prefer socialism to capitalism.

Those who still believe that capitalism is the best economic system have an uphill battle to bring the rest of us around to their opinion. Global climate change appears to have been aggravated by neo-liberal capitalism. Then consider that 11.6% of the U.S. population lives in poverty, while the capitalist system keeps funneling money up to the billionaires.

I think it’s possible to justify something other than the neo-liberal capitalism we’re currently stuck with. It should be possible to have a capitalism that deals with poverty, that creates dignified jobs, that stops the kind of unrestrained growth that leads to ecological disaster. But I’m not seeing anyone working in that direction. These days, capitalism seems to be pretty much divorced from ethical concerns.

As a result, we have mainstream figures like Pope Francis essentially saying that capitalism is evil. We have a growing number of young people who no longer believe in capitalism. We have smart people proposing interesting alternatives to standard capitalist economics.

For myself, I’m no longer able to justify capitalism from an ethical point of view. If the capitalist United States has an 11.6% poverty rate, something’s wrong….

Emerson on reparations

On January 1, 1863, in celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, Ralph Waldo Emerson read a poem to a Boston audience. In that poem, Emerson considered the then-current idea that slave-owners should be compensated for having their slaves taken away from them. To this ethically bankrupt notion, he replied:

Pay ransom to the owner,
And fill the bag to the brim.
Who is the owner? The slave is owner,
And ever was. Pay him.

This seems to me to be a good concise summary of the case for reparations.

And no wonder many present-day political leaders reject the notion of reparations to the descendants of slavery. If we compensate the descendants of slaves for their stolen labor, by a logical progression we might then have to compensate the offshore workers for the full value of their labor. Or compensate the underpaid warehouse workers and retail employees in this country for the full value of their labor. There’s even an implication that today’s billionaires did not in fact earn their fabulous wealth through their own efforts. In other words, the assummptions underlying reparations contradict the assumptions of economic libertarianism.

Is your identity set in stone?

If you’re reaching sexual maturity today, you have a wide array of sexual orientations with which you might identify. There are the old categories of straight, bisexual, gay, and lesbian. There is a continuum from asexual through graysexual to allosexual, though it’s not a linear continuum since it also includes demisexual and aspec and other identities. The old continuum of gay/lesbian to straight (where if asked “how gay are you?” you might reply “a Kinsey 6”) now must include more than two binary genders. Thus, in addition to gay or straight, we now have pansexual, omni sexual, polysexual, etc.

In my observation as a sexuality educator, this plethora of sexual orientations can be both freeing and confusing for young adolescents. Some young adolescents, including the ones who have felt they are somehow different than the norms shown in popular culture, are relieved to find that there are other people out there like them. Other young adolescents, including those who may feel that they don’t fit into pop culture norms, may not see themselves reflected in any of the existing categories, or may see themselves reflected in more than one category. Even young adolescents who fit into one of the old categories (one they don’t have to explain to their parents) find the need to understand the new plethora of sexual orientations, as friends and acquaintances identify with other sexual orientations.

I think it’s helpful to introduce young adolescents to the concept of sexual fluidity. Back in 2014, social psychologist Justin Lehmiller wrote:

“Over the last decade [i.e., prior to 2014], the concept of sexual fluidity has drawn great attention from both scientists and the general public alike. In case you aren’t familiar with it, the basic idea behind sexual fluidity is that some of us have the capacity for a ‘flexible’ erotic response, which can lead to significant variability in one’s pattern of sexual attraction, behavior, and identity over time. In other words, someone who is sexually fluid may experience fluctuations in who they are attracted to, who they sleep with, and what labels they identify with multiple times over the lifespan.”

In other words, your sexual orientation can change over time. I feel this is a useful corrective to a culture that seems to want to put us into a limited number of essentialist categories — we are gay or straight (but not something in between), black or white (but not biracial), Democrat or Republican (but not socialist or communist).

There’s a theological point here. Existentialist theology suggests that humans don’t have a pre-existing essence. We define our essences ourselves, through our actions in the world. By contrast, essentialist theologies insist that humans have defined essences from their beginnings. Essentialist theologies include both conservative Christian theologies (“man is sinful”) on the one hand, and atheist theologies (“humans are programmed by their biology”) on the other hand.

While some Unitarian Universalists do espouse essentialist theologies, mostly essentialist atheist theologies, I’d like to think that most of us do not fall into the essentialist trap. Instead, we assert that humans can change over time. Where others try to place humans into little boxes of essentialist identities, as existentialists we know that we have the ultimate freedom to define our own essence through our actions.

Fatigue

I just received email asking for my help in a social justice cause that I care about. And I deleted it.

I can’t add any more to my life right now. Because — COVID. Because I’m trying to keep programs running to support kids and families who are stressed because of COVID. Because I know what little I’m able to do is inadequate, but it’s what I can do.

Yes, I know I should feel guilty for deleting that email. Yes, I know I should feel guilty for working for a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Silicon Valley when the needs are much greater elsewhere. But the nice thing about COVID fatigue is that I no longer have the energy to feel guilty. Instead, now I practice humility: I no longer pretend that I can save the world. I do my part, but I no longer have to pretend to do more than my part.

“God” and monotheism

I have found the concept of god to be useful, regardless of whether one is a theist or atheist; God as a concept has a long history in Western philosophy, at least as far back as the ancient Greeks. But in order for the concept of god to be useful, you can’t have an anachronistic understanding of god.

These days, a typical anachronistic understanding of god is one where “god” is equated with the God of conservative and traditional Christians. Christian theologians have used many ancient Greek philosophical concepts to build widely varying theologies over the past two thousand years, and while it is usually clear that someone like Aristotle was not a Christian, it’s easy to forget that Aristotle was also not a monotheist.

Yet in his Metaphysics, Aristotle famously refers to the “unmoved mover,” which Western tradition has typically equated with the Christian God. If Aristotle was not a monotheist, what then did he mean by the “unmoved mover”? Amod Lele explains in a post on his blog “Love of All Wisdom”:

“Some translations of Aristotle have him referring to capital-G ‘God,’ but this is misleading. What these translations render as ‘God’ is to theos, literally meaning ‘the god,’ in lowercase in the Greek. The ‘the’ in ‘the god’ is used here in a generic sense, as classical Greek so often does — a universalized singular to represent the plural class of particulars, as when they might make general statements about what ‘the boy’ or ‘the dog’ is likely to do. Plato in the Laws, for example, said ‘Of all animals, the boy is the most unmanageable’; it is a classical Greek idiom that could also be translated ‘Of all animals, boys are the most unmanageable.’ If we were to render to theos as ‘God,’ then this passage should instead be rendered ‘Of all animals, Boy is the most unmanageable.'”

Thus, according to Lele’s reading, when Aristotle speaks of the something that is often translated “God,” what he really means is “the gods.” To say Aristotle was a monotheist would be an anachronistic assertion; Aristotle was clearly a polytheist who acknowledged several gods and goddesses (Zeus, Hera, etc.). Lele, citing Richard Bodeus’ book Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals, writes:

“Aristotle mentions ‘the god,’ the generic term for the plural gods, only as an analogy to help illustrate his point (against Plato) that the unmoved mover has a real presence in the physical world rather than being an abstraction.”

The useful aspect of the concept of god is not so much in metaphysics, but in ethics. How do I lead the best life? In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle suggests that the highest good is contemplation — not contemplation of the Christian god, but perhaps contemplation of the highest good. Lele reads the Nichomachean Ethics in this way:

“…There is a supreme good beyond the finite, but that good is not to reach a final end identified with the goodness of a single god. Rather it is to be godlike, to live the kind of infinite life that the many gods live — and it is quite questionable how achievable Aristotle intends this goal to be for humans.”

What I find most interesting about this discussion is that “god,” in the Western tradition, need not mean the Christian God. (Even if “god” could be equated with the Christian God, Christianity is wildly diverse with so many different understandings of the nature of the Christian God, that you couldn’t assume that “god” meant what the conservative United States Christians of early twenty-first century mean.) Mind you, it may be difficult for many Westerners to think beyond the confines of Christian definitions of God; but doing so can provide access to the philosophical tool kits of Aristotle, Socrates, Heraclitus, Spinoza, and many others.

Clergy hit a new low in perceptions of ethics and honesty

Gallup has been polling people in the U.S. since 1977 about perceptions of the honesty and ethics of various professions. These Gallup polls rate the perceived honesty of professions as “very high/high,” “average,” or “very low/low” (with the obvious addition of a choice for “no opinion”).

In Gallup’s most recent poll about perceptions of the ethics and honesty of various professions, the nursing profession again tops the list, with 84% of people giving them a “very high/high” rating, 15% giving them an “average rating,” and 1% giving them a “very low/low” rating.

By contrast, only 37% of people give clergy as a profession a “very high/high” rating for honesty and ethics; 43% give an “average rating,” 15% give a “very low/low” rating, with the remainder offering “no opinion.” In their report, Gallup made a special note of the decline in the perception of clergy honesty and ethics:

“Gallup has measured Americans’ views of the clergy’s honesty and ethics 34 times beginning in 1977, and this year’s 37% very high/high rating is the lowest to date. Although the overall average positive rating is 54%, it has consistently fallen below that level since 2009. The historical high of 67% occurred in 1985. Positive views of the honesty and ethics of the clergy dropped in 2002 amid a sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, and although positive ratings rebounded somewhat in the next few years, they fell to 50% in 2009 and have been steadily declining since 2012.”

However, although the Catholic sexual abuse scandal is foremost in many people’s minds, evangelical Christian blogger Warren Throckmorton notes that there are other clergy scandals affecting some people’s perceptions of clergy. Throckmorton specifically mentions the recent accusations of clergy financial misconduct at Harvest Bible Church, an evangelical Christian megachurch near Chicago: when some whistle-blower bloggers made those accusations public, rather than addressing the accusations, Harvest Bible Church sued the bloggers for defamation. Throckmorton contrasts Harvest Bible Church with Willow Creek Church, another big evangelical Christian megachurch which recently ousted its founding pastor after credible allegations of misconduct; subsequently the entire leadership team resigned, realizing their leadership had been compromised by their poor handling of the allegations, and realizing that the church needed to get a fresh start. (Throckmorton’s most recent blog post about Harvest Bible Church, which links to the Gallup poll, is here.) We could add more examples from outside evangelical Christianity of how organized religious groups respond poorly to accusations of ethical lapses and dishonesty: the many accusations against the Church of Scientology and their opaque responses come immediately to mind.

One thing that I get from Throckmorton’s post is that poor governance goes hand in hand with decline in trust in clergy. And we should distinguish governance from polity. The hierarchical polity of the Roman Catholic Church should in theory be more effective at removing unethical clergy than our Unitarian Universalist congregational polity; more than one unethical Unitarian Universalist minister was able to continue their unethical ways because the Unitarian Universalist Association cannot prevent a local congregation from hiring whomever they want as minister. However, all too often the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy covered up clergy misconduct. The Unitarian Universalist Association, by contrast, has recommended that search committees carry out careful background checks of potential new clergy hires; in Unitarian Universalism, the failures in governance too often take place at the local level, representing the biggest weakness of congregational polity is dealing with ethics; but on the whole, despite the weakness of its polity, Unitarian Universalists have a somewhat better record of dealing with clergy misconduct than the Roman Catholic Church. Again, my point here is that no type of polity is immune from ethical lapses; the real issue is good governance practices within whatever polity a religion might have.

I suspect, therefore, that the decline in the perception of clergy honesty is linked to a wider decline in trust of organized religion — a decline that in many cases is deserved. Lay leaders and clergy, regardless of our polity, need to be scrupulously careful about maintaining good governance practices that are transparent and that strengthen accountability; and when ethical violations arise, we need to address them quickly and transparently.

Your CEO has already earned more than you

According to the BBC:

The date of 4 January is marked as the day when CEOs of Britain’s biggest companies already earn what it takes an average worker to make in a year. But British CEOs are not the only ones who out-earn their workers so quickly. An analysis of the wage gap between CEOs and workers in 22 countries by the financial and media company Bloomberg shows that executives in the United States and India can get the average worker’s yearly wage even faster.

In Great Britain, CEOs make 201 times the average workers salary; in the United States, they make 265 times as much as the average worker. So if you live in the U.S., Great Britain, or India, your CEO may already have made two or three times your annual salary.

Silicon Valley has a high concentration of CEOs living here (that is, one of their many houses is located here). We also have a heck of a lot of homelessness here — people living in RVs, people couch surfing, people living in tent encampments, people living on the street, people living in homeless shelters — because of the high cost of housing, which has been driven sky-high in part by demand from people who have lots of money to spend on housing.

Which means if we want to solve the homelessness problem, it’s not enough to build more housing (the supply-side solution). Cutting CEO salaries, and the salaries of all the top 1/10%, is a good first step; Safra Catz, CEO of Oracle, is not worth $40 million a year, nor does she need that much money, nor does she deserve it when her salary means that lots of people have to live on the street.

This also means that it’s not enough for Democrats to get angry with Donald Trump. The Democrats have been trying to ally themselves to Silicon Valley, but in terms of inequality of wealth the Silicon Valley execs are just as evil as Mr. Trump.