Nov 15, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 3, 2019
For about ten years I edited “Workers Power,” a monthly column that appeared in the labor newspaper the “Industrial Worker.” It was a forum for working people to share their experiences organizing a labor union. The people who wrote for it worked all kinds of jobs. Over the years I ran pieces by baristas and bartenders, bicycle messengers and truck drivers, grocery clerks, nurses, teachers, and a host of others. One of the wonderful things about the column was that it put me in touch with a huge range of people.
The prominent historian and labor lawyer Staughton Lynd even asked me, at one point, if he could submit something for the column. He wrote a beautiful piece remembering his friend Vicky Starr, one of the women who had organized Packinghouse Workers union in the Chicago stockyards in the 1940s.
Staughton’s profile of Vicky was a portrait of someone who had lived a courageous life. The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined courage as the midpoint between fear and confidence. He wrote, “whoever stands firm against the right things and fears the right things, for the right end, in the right way, at the right time, and is correspondingly confident” is the courageous person. When we are courageous we name our fears and then we act to address them. We act not with the certainty that we can overcome what we fear. Instead, we act holding onto the possibility that we can overcome. We find such a sentiment referenced in Abdellatif Laâbi’s poem “Life:”
I have seen what I have said
I have hidden nothing of the horror
I have done what I could
I have taken everything from love
given everything to love
Vicky had courage. She knew that the only way that her life and the lives of her co-workers was going to get better was if they acted together. And she knew that doing so carried significant risks. But that did not stop her from acting. When someone Vicky worked with lost a finger making hotdogs, she convinced everyone on the production line to put down their tools and walkout. The company quickly put in safety equipment. Unfortunately, Vicky was identified as a leader and lost her job.
A little while later Vicky was back at the plant. She used the name of a friend to get rehired. Over the next few years, she led short strikes when people died or were injured on the job. Vicky found the women easier to organize than the men. In order to recruit men for the union she discovered she had to go to where they hung out after work. Though it made her uncomfortable, she started visiting the bars they frequented. She learned to shoot pool and bowl.
Eventually, the union was established. Recalling the experience Vicky told Staughton, "You had this sense that people were ready to get together, to protect each other.”
The courage that people like Vicky exhibited was a common thread that united many of the columns. Workers sometimes wrote about getting fired and the difficulty they had in making ends meet as a result. Other times they wrote about standing up to a bully of a boss. Often the writers would reflect on how the courage they discovered while organizing on the job helped them to move from “low self-esteem” to exuding “confidence.” They would be courageous, confront their employer, win a modest victory and gain a bit of confidence in their ability to improve their lives. Some of these victories would be extremely modest--winning an extra bathroom break or new oven mitts for the kitchen staff--but each little victory would help them gain courage for their next action.
In their courageous acts, workers often exhibited a lot of creativity. In one the author described how he and his co-workers had forced their employer to pay them back wages that they were owed. They worked at a bar and hadn’t been paid in some weeks. They put up a picket outside and began handing out flyers with the headline “Free Drinks.” The text explained that since the workers were not getting paid the drinks at the bar should be free. Some customers went inside, presented the flyers to the bar owner, and demanded their free drinks. He was not amused. The workers soon got the money they were owed.
Courage often sparks creativity. It frequently comes when, in Martin King’s words, we find ourselves needing “to make a way out of no way.” It appears when, as Vicky said, “people... [are] ready to get together, to protect each other.” In such moments the ordinary rules cease to apply. People begin to imagine new ways of being and new forms of action.
Seventeenth-century English universalists used to call this the experience of “the world turned upside down.” It comes when, in times of crisis, people realize that the regular hierarchies of life--hierarchies such as class, race, and gender--are no longer serving them. And that in order to confront the crises they face they have to try to figure out a new way to live.
Have you ever had such an experience? Where you had to stop what you were doing and reimagine the way you and those around you related to each other? Where you began to find, if only briefly, a new way of being? Where you witnessed the world turned upside down?
Over the last few weeks, some of you will remember, I have been trying to draw your attention to the situation in Rojava. Rojava is the region of Northern Syria where the Kurds and their allies have been working with the United States military to destroy ISIS. The people of Rojava are the ones who were betrayed by the President’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
Rojava is important because the people there have been attempting to turn the world upside down. That region of the world is traditionally a very patriarchal culture. The people of Rojava have come to realize that movements like ISIS are based in patriarchy; and that the only way such movements can ultimately be defeated is by liberating women. They have inverted the social hierarchy and placed women at the top. They believe women’s “freedom and equality determines the freedom and equality of all sections of society.” And so, they have created a remarkable system of governance, which they call democratic confederalism, which says that every unit of society has to have both male and female representatives. They have an army led by men and an army led by women. Their town’s have two mayors--one male and one female. And, in order to fully turn the world upside down, the women have veto authority while the men do not. Now, obviously, this does not include all genders. But it is a radical reshaping of society--an incredible instance of collective courage--for a society where the alternative is a brutal system of patriarchal rule where women are treated as objects--even bought and sold as slaves--rather than human beings.
My own experiences of turning the world upside down mostly come from my work in the labor movement. When an employer refuses to address a health and safety concern and workers organize to deal with it anyway they are turning the world upside down. They are inverting the system where their employer gets to make decisions about their working conditions. Instead of management determining, for instance, if they are going to work with insufficient equipment they decide they won’t work until such equipment is provided. Sometimes, they might even provide it themselves--I know of more than one worksite where workers came together, bought equipment they needed, and then presented their boss with a bill.
Turning the world upside is a form of what we might call collective courage. This month we are talking about courage. This week we are talking about collective courage. Next week I will talk with you about individual courage. I start with the collective for two reasons. First, we are in a period of great social crises. This year in worship we are focusing on developing the spiritual and religious resources necessary to confront the grave crises of the hour: the climate crisis; the resurgence of white supremacy; and the global assault on democracy. We can only confront them by joining together. We can only address them by developing collective courage.
Second, if we are part of a community that practices collective courage then we are much more likely we practice it as individuals. The workers whose stories I edited for my column were not acting by themselves. They were part of a labor union. Their membership in such an organization gave them the confidence, gifted them the courage, to act and try to turn the world upside down. It would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, for them to do so, if they had been on their own.
The congregations that make up the Unitarian Universalist Association have been practicing collective courage and turning the world upside for hundreds of years. Our insistence that congregations should be run by their members was, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a profound act of turning the world upside down. The idea that all people had within the “likeness to God,” as William Ellery Channing taught, was a revolutionary one in a society that taught that people were born with original sin. The idea that congregation’s should select their own ministers was radical. It inverted the traditional hierarchy that placed the clergy in control of the church. Equally radical was the idea that ministers did not have a special relationship with the divine. We were understood to be people with special skills and a particular education that could guide the congregation in living its covenant and realizing its vision. Despite these skills, our congregants knew that they had the same relationship with the divine that we did.
At a time when kings still had divine rights, such a conception of a religious community was an act of collective courage. It was tied to our understanding of human nature. In the mid-nineteenth-century, the Unitarian theologian James Walker preached, “We are not born with a character, good or bad, but only with a capacity to form one.” People formed the congregations that became Unitarian Universalist as places to help each other cultivate good character. They believed that it was very difficult to develop good character on one’s own. It required participation in a larger collective.
Character, in the sense that our Unitarian forbearers used it, was not an idea unique to them. They were deeply influenced by ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle. Our character, Aristotle understood, was the sum total of our virtues and vices. Virtues are those habits of ours--those things we do over and over again until they become part of our very being--which are praiseworthy. Vices are, well vices, are the opposite.
We are a society more beset by vice than virtue. Voices of reason are telling us that if we are to survive as a human species we need to find collective courage and turn the world upside. This week the academic journal BioScience published an article signed by more than 11,000 scientists that declared “clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.” They warn that urgent action is needed if we wish to avoid “significant disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies, [and] potentially makes large areas of Earth uninhabitable.”
At almost the same time, the President notified the United Nations that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Paris Agreement is the major international agreement suggesting how the human species might confront the grave emergency we face. And the President has decided that the United States should not be part of it. The impact of the decision of world’s largest economy to not--on a federal level--act and confront humanity’s existential crisis is likely to be significant.
In this era of existential crisis, we need communities that will help us nurture the necessary virtues to respond to what Martin King called “the fierce urgency of now.” The climate scientists are telling us that, in King’s words, “This is no time... to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism... It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.” Chief among the virtues, the resources, that we need today, in this time of fierce urgency, is courage.
There are two practices of collective courage that we might nurture in this community and find helpful in our efforts to face the fierce urgency of the moment. Each of them was present in Vicky Star’s life. We can manifest each of them in our own. They are: fellowship and accompaniment.
The courage of fellowship is the courage of association. It means, building a community of people who might not otherwise come together. It is a core virtue of any congregation committed to the task of collective liberation. We find it described in the Christian New Testament as one of Jesus’s central activities.
For Jesus, it meant radical table fellowship. It was one of the most profound ways he challenged the powers and principalities of his day. He brought people together across social classes and across ethnic divisions.
The story is recounted in multiple gospels. Jesus had among his followers many tax-collectors and sinners. And they ate together. This might seem like a fairly innocuous activity. It was not. It was a great act of collective courage. In ancient Palestine, in the Jewish community, tax-collectors and sinners--by whom I suspect the text meant prostitutes--would have been some of the most despised people around.
In those days much of Jewish life was organized around ritual purity. Only the ritually pure could worship at the Temple. Only the ritually pure could find favor with the divine. Tax-collectors and prostitutes were not ritually pure. It was an act of social disruption to bring them together. It was an act of ritual impurity to eat together. It was a way in which Jesus turned the world upside down.
The Christian New Testament claims, Jesus, this great religious teacher, choose to eat amongst them and not amongst those who were already virtuous. I have suggested in the past that the key to understanding the Christian New Testament is found in Luke 17:20-21: “‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God will come. You cannot say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is!’ For the kingdom of God is among you!’”
The practice of fellowship is one way we bring the kingdom of God among us. In order to organize her meatpacking plant Vicky Star had to bring together, to engage in fellowship with, people who often hated each other. She brought people into the union who never would have talked to each other otherwise--black and white workers, Jewish and Catholic workers, Irish, Polish, Mexican, and Italian workers. It was by doing so that she and her co-workers were able to find the collective courage to address the challenges that they faced.
How might we apply the collective courage of fellowship to our lives and our religious community? After the service you will be having an opportunity to discuss my assessment report of First Church. We will be holding the first in a series of cottage meetings on the future of the congregation. Two of the things I have suggested you might wrestle with in the coming years as a religious community touch directly on the collective courage of fellowship. These are the questions, implied in my report: What is the vision of First Church? And who is First Church for?
That we will be having this conversation as a congregation is a legacy of our religious ancestors decision to, in their churches, turn the world upside down. For, it is ultimately you, the laity, who will develop your vision, your expression of collective courage, for this congregation.
This leads me to the collective courage of accompaniment. Staughton Lynd, and his wife Alice, have developed a theory of it. The Lynds names might be familiar to some of you. They are well known peace activists. Now in their nineties, they spent many years in late sixties and early seventies counseling draft dodgers. This experience led them to develop what they called the theory of “two experts.” They describe it this way: “The draft counselor was presumably an expert on Selective Service law and regulations, and on the practice of local draft boards. But the counselee was an expert on his own life experience, on the predictable responses of parents and significant others, and on how much risk the counselee was prepared to confront.”
The collective courage of accompaniment is one well suited for congregations like ours. Many of you are experts in particular fields--doctors, lawyers, social workers, human resource professionals, the list goes on. The theory of two experts is a way for those of us who have significant expertise in one subject to meet those we work with as equals. And in meeting as equals we practice the collective courage of turning the world upside down.
Staughton was able to write about Vicky because he and Alice had gotten to know her when they applied their theory of two experts to the field of labor history. Rather than presuming that they, Ivy League educated professionals, knew what the lives of working people were like they asked them. They gathered priceless oral histories of people coming together to collectively improve their lives and developed theories of organizing that have recently inspired Uber and Lyft drivers in their own efforts to create labor unions.
Members of First Church have practiced, without I suspect knowing it, aspects of the theory of two experts and accompaniment in your work with Neighbor-to-Neighbor. I have heard you tell me that when you work with partner organizations you follow their lead--offering the expertise and volunteer time that you have while letting them craft the agenda. This is an act of collective courage. For those of us who are used to being charge and making decisions, it means recognizing that people have an expertise that comes from their own experience.
I used my own understanding of the theory of two experts in my efforts to craft the assessment report that we will be discussing over the coming weeks. I met with more than forty of you to listen to your stories about First Church. And then, using my understanding of congregations and religious life, I attempted to use my expertise as a minister and a scholar to offer a portrait of yourselves. As the month proceeds and I listen to your responses to the report I will find out the accuracy of my portrait. And you will, as experts in your experience of First Church, get to decide how you want to cultivate character, craft collective courage, as a religious community in the coming years.
Fellowship and accompaniment can lead to the collective courage of action. That was certainly the case in Vicky Star’s life. By bringing people together and traveling with them on a journey she was able to help them act to improve their lives and to, perhaps only briefly, turn the world upside down.
In these days of existential crises, when the world can seem drear and dismal, collective courage comes to us well recommended. By practicing fellowship and accompaniment we might yet figure out how to make a way out of no way, and ultimately address the grave challenges of the hour. For, it is like the Unitarian Universalist minister Wayne Arnason has said:
Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
For deep down, there is another truth:
you are not alone.
In that spirit, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Nov 7, 2019
A few people from the congregation I serve and from the broader Unitarian Universalist community have been asking me for more information on Rojava, the autonomous region in Northern Syria now under attack by the Turkish military and the reactionary Islamic militas that aligned with it. I have compiled this brief list to aid those who would like to learn more. I intend to update it as I find more useful materials. Here are some of the resources I have found useful:
To Dare Imagining: Rojava Revolution, ed. Dilar Dirik, et al (New York: Autonomedia, 2016)
Thomas Schmidinger, The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds: Self-Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in the Afrin Region of Rojava (Oakland: PM Press, 2019)
Web-sites and Periodicals Covering Rojava
Rojava Information Center, an organization devoted to providing journalists, politicians, and others with up to date information about what it is happening in Rojava
Emergency Committee for Rojava, an organization “to encourage and help facilitate coordinated action to end the occupation of Afrin and support autonomy for Rojava”
Organizations in Rojava
Kongra Star Diplomacy Rojava, a confederation of women's organizations in Rojava
Syrian Democratic Council, Rojava’s political organization
Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), the umbrella organization for the aligned military forces of Rojava
People’s Defense Units, also known as the YPG, the main, primarily Kurdish, military organization in the SDF
Women‘s Protection Units, also known as the YPJ, the autonomous women’s military organization in the SDF
Organizations in Houston and Internationally
Kurdish American Foundation of Houston, a local organization celebrating Kurdish culture and community
Kurdish Red Crescent, a humanitarian organization with offices in Germany and Kobane providing medical aid to the people of Rojava. It is currently the only NGO remaining in the region
Dilar Dirik, Political Sociologist and PhD student at the University of Cambridge, active in the Kurdish women’s movement
Kongra Star Diplomacy Rojava, official account of the women’s movement in Rojava
People’s Defense Units, also known as the YPG
Nuri Mahmoud, official spokesperson of the YPG
Rojava Information Center
Elif Sarican, Anthropologist based at the London School of Economics, active in the Kurdish women’s movement
Oct 21, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 20, 2019
When I was twelve or thirteen one of my friends showed up to church in a suit. It was crisp and navy blue. It was paired with a lightly starched white shirt and a butter brown leather shoes polished to a glossy shine. With it, he wore a tie with a classic four in a hand knot that he done up himself.
This confused the rest of us. We were a group of perhaps half a dozen Unitarian Universalist kids. It was the late eighties. Typical Sunday morning garb consisted of the least sloppy tie-dyed shirt or punk rock pin festooned jacket that our parents could force us into. If we were going to be in the sanctuary for a special service--Christmas or Flower Communion--we might be strongly encouraged to wear jeans with no visible holes and some kind of shirt with buttons. But a suit? Who in our Middle School group ever wore a suit?
My friend, it turned out, had found religion. Or, more accurately, he found another religion besides Unitarian Universalism. He was at the beginning of his conversion process to some kind of fundamentalist Christianity. One Sunday it was his suit. Another Sunday found him enthusiastically talking about Jesus. A subsequent Sunday he told us that he had been “born again.” And a few Sundays after that we did not see him anymore.
He left and began attending a conservative Christian church with a grandparent. His parents and older sibling stayed in our congregation. Years later, I talked with them about why my friend had left Unitarian Universalism. They told me that he seemed to like the clear answers and structure that his new church provided him. It was organized around finding salvation through Jesus. The church leaders taught that the Bible had the answers to all life’s questions. Their preaching and teaching consisted of sharing these answers. And they claimed that the afterlife was more important than present life.
Our congregation was completely the opposite. In our religious education program we were never offered an explicit salvation narrative. We were never told that the Bible had all the answers. We were taught that our religious journeys consisted of asking questions and seeking answers. We were on a search for truth and meaning. We were not given clear definitions of either term. And we were told that our present life was more important than the afterlife. For, as Shakespeare wrote, death is “The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” At best we can only speculate about what happens after we die. We are immersed in life.
Over the years, I have found myself thinking about my friend and the path he chose. In Unitarian Universalist circles it is far more common to find people who convert from some kind of fundamentalism to Unitarian Universalism than the other way around. Comedian George Carlin’s old joke, that he was Catholic “until I reached the Age of Reason” resonates for a lot of us. How many of you came to this congregation from a more rigid faith? And how many of you have a close friend or family member who left Unitarian Universalism for a variety of strict orthodoxy?
The nineteenth-century religious dissenter Francis W. Newman claimed, “God has two families of children on this earth, the once-born and the twice-born.” He went on to describe the once-born this way, “They see God, not as a strict Judge... but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmony.” Building off Newman’s dichotomy, the philosopher William James placed our tradition firmly within the category of the once born. He complained that we generally suffered from “an inability to feel evil.” And that we lacked an understanding of the religious experience of conversion.
Is that why my friend left Unitarian Universalism? Did he feel evil sharply and need assurance that it could be conquered? Did he think he could be born again and escape it? I do not know his answer. But I am unsympathetic to James’s claim that we do not feel evil. I do not think that most of you would accuse me of suffering from an inability to feel evil. If anything, I have been accused of being too “doom and gloom” and not optimistic enough to be a good Unitarian Universalist preacher.
It is certain that I am once born. I have never had a conversion experience. Nor have I left Unitarian Universalism for another faith tradition. I have found within our tradition resources sufficient to help me weather the crises of my life--of which there have been more than a few--and to help me come to terms with the tragic. I have found resources sufficient to help answer one of the key religious questions: What does it mean to lead a good life?
It is one of the oldest questions in religion and philosophy. My friend who left my youth group found a certain answer to it by looking into the metaphysical realm and discovering his connection with, and salvation through, Jesus. My own answers have been less certain. It was, in part, that ambiguity that made my friend uncomfortable. What truth I have discovered I have discovered precisely by embracing ambiguity and placing myself amid the rich mess that is a worldly life. This is why the words of humanistic poetry, like this snatch from Alejandra Pizarnik, resonate with me:
dice que el amor es muerte es miedo
dice que la muerte es miedo es amor
dice que no sabe
She says that love is death is fear
She says that death is fear is love
She says that she doesn’t know
I find a similar sentiment in these beloved words from the Chinese poet Tu Fu:
Every day on the way home from
My office I pawn another
Of my Spring clothes. Every day
I come home from the river bank
Drunk. Everywhere I go, I owe
Money for wine. History
Records few men who lived to be
Seventy. I watch the yellow
Butterflies drink deep of the
Flowers, and the dragonflies
Dipping the surface of the
Water again and again
I cry out to the Spring wind,
And the light and the passing hours.
We enjoy life such a little
While, why should men cross each other?
It is also present in my favorite verse from the Greek poet Glykon:
Nothing but laughter, nothing
But dust, nothing but nothing,
No reason why it happens
There are no certain answers to be found in these poems. There is no suggestion that we should be born again. There are just questions and a certain humility: “She says that she doesn’t know;” “We enjoy life such a little / While, why should men cross each other?” “No reason why it happens.”
The orientation of these poems is worldly. In their worldly orientation we find a hint of a Unitarian Universalist response to question: What does it mean to live a good life? Our tradition teaches that we are to root ourselves in the here and now. We are not to place our hopes in some unspecified future when we shall be dust.
But Unitarian Universalism teaches something more than that. That something lurks in the background of these poems. And it lurked in background of my friend’s departure from the congregation of my childhood. Unitarian Universalism teaches that we are shaped by the communities of which we are members. When my friend left our youth group he left one narrative about the good life for another. His new community made that narrative explicit. Our congregation was less clear, but the teaching was there.
It was not present in words. It was present in deeds. It was found not by looking to Jesus for salvation. It was found in the lessons we could discover in sharing our lives with each other. I do not remember anyone telling me that as a child. But as I have studied Unitarian Universalist theology over the years, I have come to realize that the teaching was present all along. Usually, it was offered implicitly rather than made explicit.
Early generations of Unitarian Universalist theologians used the phrase “salvation by character” to summarize their understanding of our tradition. This phrase signifies that we are to judge each other not by our creeds--what we say we believe--but by our deeds--what we do. Over time the choices we make, the things we do, eventually add up to who we are.
This conception of the good life, that we are what we do, was something that my home congregation gave us the opportunity to discover on many occasions. One Sunday morning from my youth group made a particular impression. By then I think I was fourteen or fifteen. We had a guest in our class that morning--someone who was a member of the church but who I knew only vaguely.
He was an out gay man. He was there to share with us his coming out story. This was Lansing, Michigan in the early nineties. At the time, the city only had one gay or lesbian bar. There was no pride parade. The local newspaper still occasionally “outed” local civic figures who were living in the closet in an effort to damage their careers.
Unfortunately, I only remember the outlines of the man’s story. He had attempted to live the “straight” life for years. He had come out after several years of being married to a woman. He told us that he had lived a lie. That he had pretended to be someone he was not. While he did, he suffered immensely. He was depressed. He considered self-harm. He engaged in dangerous behaviors. And then, finally, once he left the marriage, and he found himself. He was living a life where he was authentically himself. He had even found a man who loved him. And he and his partner had recently moved in together. And they were happy.
The story had an impact on us. We talked about it afterwards. A couple of the kids in my youth group identified as queer. The man’s story gave them permission to be themselves. And it gave all of us a role model, a resource, we could turn to if we were questioning our own orientation.
The religious path of salvation by character can be found in my vignette about my youth group. There are moral exemplars in the world. We can learn from them. We can model our lives after them. And maybe, just maybe, if we do, we might be able to become something like them.
The man whose story I recounted was undoubtedly far from perfect. I am sure he had struggles beyond his sexuality that he did not share with us. I imagine that, like most of us, he had his petty moments, that he sometimes spoke harshly to his children or his partner or that he held grudges. Salvation by character does not mean that we are perfect. It comes from an understanding that we can do things to make our lives and the lives of others better. We can make choices that lead us to live lives of authenticity.
We need a community to do so. My Unitarian Universalist community provided that man a place where he could share his story. And it provided us with the opportunity to listen to him. In those days, there were few other places in Lansing where we could collectively question the social norm that to be happy people had to be in heterosexual relationships. In those days, there were few places where that man could feel accepted and loved by his community, live his authentic life, and offer what he had learned to others.
Salvation by character, the life story he shared was not a clear path to salvation. It did not offer the neat narrative of the born-again Christian--which my friend had turned to. It did not tell us that there was a single solution, a single path that we all should follow. Yes, it did contain an element of transformation, the man left a life where he could not be authentically himself for one in which he could. However, his story was about embracing who he was in this world--not rejecting it. It was not a story about confessing his sins and seeking salvation through Jesus. It was a story about admitting to himself who he was and then having the courage to be himself.
Our lives are short and fleeting things. The words we had from Jimmy Santiago Baca are meant to remind us that we have only one life that we know and how we live it matters. Baca tells us:
Who we are and what we do
appears to us
like a man dressed in a long black coat
Lo que somos y lo que hacemos
se nos aparece
como un hombre de abrigo negro y largo
That man, presumably, is death. He warns us we must bring our lives to account, must constantly cash the promissory notes that are our actions until they become our very being. We each have only one life. Time is short and so, the man tells us,
“I have many others to see today.”
“Tengo muchos otros qué ver hoy.”
Salvation by character, we are what we do. We learn how to live a good life in relation to a community. These are ideas are very old. They are much older than our tradition--something I hinted at in my invocation of seventh century Chinese and ancient Greek poetry. We might look back to Aristotle to find an early systematic treatment of them. He taught that the salvation we find in character is best expressed through the virtues. These are the elements of a good life, the things that we do which are praiseworthy--which we would hold up as examples to others.
The bravery of the man who visited my youth group was praiseworthy. He had been brave enough to leave an inauthentic life to discover one in which he was authentically himself. And that bravery was something he could help us discover in ourselves through his example.
Aristotle taught that these virtues were shaped by and informed by the community to which we belong. There was an element of what is called moral luck to this. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be born into a community or born with the circumstances to pursue a good life and sometimes we are not. Sometimes, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum has observed, things “just happen to” us. It is difficult to, in her words, “make the goodness of a good human life safe from luck.” Even as we seek to build a community where we might develop virtue--create a space where someone might share and live their authentic life--we find ourselves constantly buffeted by forces beyond control.
This, I suspect, is one reason my friend found comfort in his experience of becoming born again. It offered a permanent experience of salvation. Our once born humanistic path offers no such assurances. It, and the communities that sustain it, are vulnerable and can be lost. The good life of this world is not permanent, death, Baca’s man “in a long black coat” comes to all of us. Whatever salvation we achieve by character is at most secure for the span of our effervescent lives.
And here, as we near the close of the sermon, I am going to offer a final example of a community in which it is possible to pursue the humanistic virtues. What is happening with that community highlights the vulnerability of the good life. My transition is jagged; one of those moments when I like a jazz musician or house DJ, inelegantly switch between songs in the middle of a set. So, forgive me, as you might forgive the saxophonist who melody suddenly becomes discordant or turn tablelist whose record skips, as I jump from one thing to another.
I am going to talk about what is happening in Syria for a moment. Syria has been heavy upon my heart. In Northern Syria we find an example among the pluralistic community of Rojava of a place where it has been briefly possible to begin to pursue, to imagine, the good life. The people who live in Rojava are often called Kurds in the news. In truth, they are a multi-ethnic community of Arabs, Kurds, Yazidi, and others have spent the last several years imagining how they can create a space where they might be able to build a society where the good life is available to all people.
Following the withdrawal of the Syrian government from Northern Syria, the people of Rojava have attempted to build a community organized around three principles. These are direct democracy, ecology, and the liberation of women. Few accounts have made to the United States of exactly what this new society is starting to look like. The accounts that have emerged suggest that the good life imagined by those in Rojava is radically different than the one propagated by the oppressive, anti-ecological, patriarchal, regimes that normally reign in the region.
The people of Rojava have mandated that women must have a central role in society’s leadership. All leadership positions must be occupied by co-chairs--a man and a woman. There is also a man’s army and a woman’s army. Decisions are made at the local level, by those most impacted by them, and then coordinated across different communities. They attempt create ecological, democratic, and what we might call feminist consciousness in all that they do. This community is not perfect. Some reports suggest that while LGBT people are more welcome in Rojava than they are elsewhere in the Middle East they do not yet feel fully free to be themselves. But seven years is only a brief time to try to build a new society and invite people into a new way of being. I suspect that if Rojava survives it will, in time, become a society in which members of the LGBT community can be open about who they are and who they love. The openness to and encouragement for women’s leadership suggests that the people of Rojava are willing to make radical change.
Let me offer a brief pastiche of words from Rojava that hint at their new social vision. Here a few from Evren Kocabicak, a leader of Rojava’s women’s military wing. Three quotes: First, “nature is... a power that enables humans to achieve self-consciousness.” Second, “We have a system where every action, education or meeting is collectively evaluated; a system where such direct democracy is exercised.” Third, “Women may have a free personality and identity only so far as they have emancipated themselves from the hands of male and societal dominance and have gained power through their free initiatives.” Here are a few words from Dilar Dirik, a young Kurdish PhD student who left the region to study at the University of Cambridge. First, “All is sacred because it belongs to me, to you, to everyone.” Second, “Giving power to people who never had anything requires courage, requires trust, requires love.” Third, “Knowledge is everywhere, it needs to be valued and shared.”
I suspect that many of you hear resonances of Unitarian Universalist values within these words--of a conception of the good life that says that we must orientate ourselves to this world because we do not know what might happen in the next one. It is the society that has produced such beautiful visions that is now threatened with collapse. The United States withdrawal of troops from Northern Syria has given Turkey permission to invade. It has prepared the way for ethnic cleansing, a polite term for mass murder and dislocation. It has allowed ISIS cells to reactivate. And it has forced the people of Rojava to choose between an alliance with the repressive regime of Bashar al Assad and annihilation by the Turkish military. Their conception of the good life will almost certainly be replaced by something repressive and awful. In the words the Syrian scholar Hassan Hassan, the vision of Rojava is likely to be subplanted with a community ruled by “the worst of the worst.” Woman who have organized will be repressed and likely murdered. Democracy will be destroyed. And an ecological vision will be abandoned.
In the next week or two, we will be having an opportunity, as a religious community, to learn more about Rojava and the conception of the good life its members have. In partnership with the Kurdish American Foundation of Houston we are offering a forum featuring direct eye witness accounts of Rojava. It has not yet been scheduled. Once it is, I believe it will be the first such event in Houston. It will be a chance to learn about this new conception of the good life that after the current President’s betrayal is now under profound threat.
But for now, let us leave the subject of Rojava and attempt to bring our closing chord back into alignment with the rest of the sermon. What I have attempted to articulate, inelegantly perhaps, throughout this sermon is a simple message. We are what we do. We should orient our lives to the present world, which we know, rather the next one, from which we have, at best, scant reports. Whatever salvation there is to find we will find together. We will find it by lifting up what is best, virtuous amongst each other, and living authentically as we can: being brave, being honest, and nurturing the spark of brilliance, love, and hope that resides within each of us.
So that it might be so, I invite the congregation to say “Amen.”
Oct 10, 2019
I was asked to repost this open letter from the administration and faculty of the University of Rojava and Kobanê. This is a university started by the people of Rojava to create their radical educational institution devoted to serving the needs of the region’s people. You can read more about the University here.
For universities and associated academic and intellectual institutions
These eight years there has been a revolution taking place in Rojava/Northeast Syria, with gains in the areas of democracy, tolerance, a culture of fraternity of peoples, respect for diverse religions and beliefs, gender equality, and individual liberty, a unique example growing in the Middle East. Despite all the radicalism in the region, we can live together, and both support and accept each other. We in the university also want a democratic social order that can strengthen modern science.
We wanted to become a centre of enlightenment and revitalisation of universal moral and social values that humanity has gained over its long history, preparing for free and peace loving future generations. But unfortunately, our university in Rojava, which is a garden of democracy, finds itself under the boot of the armies of the Turkish state and their thugs.
You know that Turkey, for the entirety of the Syrian war, has supported ISIS, and their hand is found in every massacre which has been carried out against the people of Syria. Today Turkey is trying to breathe new life into the Caliphate of ISIS, which had been brought down thanks to the resistance of the people of this region, and this dark force has helped it to organise itself anew.
All the so-called opposition forces of Syria which have a fanatical and radical, the Turkish state embraces them, lets them grow, and supports them so they may be employed as tools of war for them. Most of them are former members of ISIS and al-Qaeda, and Turkey now provokes them and lets them loose against our democracy and our advances.
Doubtless, the ignoring of rights, the censorship of our views, mean the acceptance and approval, the green light of great states such as Russia and America. On behalf of all the states that seek to benefit, Turkey will again carry out a significant massacre against the peoples of the region.
If there is a great threat and danger upon us now, if Islamic radicalism can move forward and amass forces with ease, if Turkey can organise massacres and slaughter as the largest terrorist organisation in the world, it is our belief that a historical role and responsibility rests upon the intellectual and academic communities of the world.
After the massacres of the Holocaust that were committed by Hitler, Adorno, in criticising the lack of responsibility shouldered by the intellectual community of his time, said “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”.
Now too, in the particularity of Rojava, where the armies of Turkish fascism and Islamic radicalism have brought down every value and virtue of humanity, we hope that the scientific and intellectual community of the world will immediately take action against massacres such as those that have occurred in the Holocaust and in Şengal, which are still occurring, and will uphold their duties and responsibilities to humanity.
In this letter, we are writing to you so that you, among your own people, help resist against these armies which have tasked themselves with tearing down science and the work of the university, in the name of the defence of existence and honour.
Greetings on behalf of the administration and faculty of the University of Rojava and Kobanê
Aug 20, 2019
This year during my vacation in England and France I published almost daily blog posts. My writing was experiment to see if I could maintain a regular posting schedule. I also wanted to create a record of the trip. I went with my parents and son. I am not sure how many more long trips we will be able to take together and I thought it would be nice to have a travel log.
Over the month, I wrote four sets of posts. Each set was composed in one of the places where we were staying: Arles, Paris, Sers, and London. My posts tended to fall into four general, often overlapping, themes. I wrote about art, food, places, and politics. My favorite posts about art revolved around family friends Markéta Luskačová and Libuse Jarcovjakova. I summarized the restaurants we visited with posts about places to eat in London and Paris and paid tribute to Cadenheads in London. I wrote about the streets of Arles, Parc de la Villette in Paris, Chateau d’If off the coast of Marseille, the fascinating Château de La Rochefoucauld, and the disgust I felt at Versailles. I composed a meditation on the relation between fashion and politics as walked the Rue de Turenne and I met with a retired professor of political science, a journalist, and some anarchists to discuss the state of French politics. And I offered some pastoral words in the wake of a wave of mass shootings in the United States.
If the object was create a travel log that I will use to remember the trip, my blogging was absolutely a success. The same can be said if the objective was to increase the traffic to my blog. It roughly doubled over the course of the time that I kept the blog. The five posts that generated the most traffic were: Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism); Reflecting on the Mass Shootings in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Southhaven from London; Château de La Rochefoucauld; It is the Job of the Far Left to Organize the Margins; and Europe 2019.
Composing a daily blog was a time consuming labor. It took me between 30 minutes and an hour and a half each day. It is not something that I will be continuing now that I am back in Houston. Instead, my blog will largely return to being a place for me to publish the texts of my sermons, letters to the congregation I serve, and announcements about upcoming events. On occasion, I will post other things but for the moment I will be focusing my non-sermon related writing on my scholarship.
Jul 27, 2019
We left Paris for a week in Sers, a small village outside of the southwestern city of Angoulême. We will staying with our friend Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. They just finished building a country house and studio there. It is so newly constructed that all of the furniture is yet to arrive. Everyone gets their own bedroom but I get to sleep on the floor.
Here’s the list of my blog posts in Paris:
It is the Job of the Far Left to Organize the Margins
The Failure of French Socialism and Future Tasks for the Left
Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism)
The New French Right: a Conversation with Pascale Tournier
I will be writing a long post about food in Paris over the next couple of days while we’re in Sers. No trip there is complete without a meditation of the city’s cuisine.
Jul 20, 2019
Like a lot of other people, I enjoy shopping in Paris. Unlike the United States, there are only big sales twice a year—in July and January. I have learned that if you know where to go you can get some pretty extraordinary deals. As a minister and an academic I routinely show up in all sorts of circumstances wearing a suit and tie—or at the very least a sports jacket and nice slacks–and professional clothes cost a lot of money. A nice suit can easily set me back several hundred dollars.
The summer sales in Paris are good enough that it is possible to actually save a fair bit of money. The place I like to go is Rue de Turenne. It is a famous area for men’s shops in the Marais, a neighborhood in Paris that is a center for Paris’s Jewish and LGBT communities, fashion, and art. A lot of the men’s shops are small boutique designers or custom tailors. When the fashion seasons turn over they dramatically reduce their prices.
Three places I like to go are Johann, where I have bought several suits, Sam Daniel, which has wonderful light weight slacks, and Danyberd, where I have bought some nice shirts. The real deals are generally to be found on the suits. Both Sam Daniel and Johann typically have summer sales where they sell their suits for significantly less than I might be able to get them in the United States. Johann, for instance, sells Ermenegildo Zegna for about 25% of the price it would cost in the United States. This year I got a couple of nice suits from them and a really fantastic sports jacket. The pants and suit I got at Sam Daniel would have cost probably two or three times as much in the United States.
This brief rundown of my favorite men’s shops in Paris might come as a bit of a surprise to some people who know me well. An interest in high end men’s fashion and a commitment to Left radicalism don’t usually go together. In fact, there’s a variety of pejoratives that are sometimes hurled at people like me for the hypocrisy often supposed to be found in enjoying quality things and partaking of a privileged life—radical chic or champagne socialist to offer two. There is truth in those critiques, but hypocrisy is a fundamental condition that anyone with a moral compass must suffer under capitalism. Though Marx was thinking of the labor process when he wrote about alienation, I think that his insight that alienation is central to capitalism was a crucial one. In a capitalist system, based on consumerism and the exploitation of labor, we are all, in some way, alienated.
One example of this is the way in which churches have to function. Many religious communities aspire to be outside of the capitalist system. Many Unitarian Universalists are to some extent anti-capitalist. Yet in order to run a congregation of any scale, congregations have to hire employees—administrators, sextons, religious educators, musicians, ministers, and the like. As soon as they do this, they become employers and are forced to operate within the logic of capitalist employment schemes. Productive workers—those who further the mission of the congregation—need to be kept happy so that they won’t go somewhere else. Unproductive workers—those who don’t further the mission—have to be encouraged towards greater productivity or fired. But as all of this is happening congregations espouse, struggle to uphold, and advocate for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Except, when it comes to an employment situation under capitalism, they can’t. The logic of the system requires that workers in a church be treated by the church like workers in any other industry—as a means to an end. This a fundamental contradiction that cannot be overcome and it creates an alienation, a distance, between the values of the religious community and the community’s actions.
This brings me back to the question of men’s clothes. My choice is ultimately how I am going to position myself to best advocate for the transformation of the system. As I have written about in the past, I have a certain amount of privilege. One way I can leverage this privilege is by dressing a certain way—wearing a suit and tie for instance. Over the years, I have found that a lot of upper middle-income white people will be more accepting of radical ideas—and might even begin to adopt them—if I present myself as well educated, integrated into upper middle-income culture, and well dressed. My Minns lectures, for instance, both offer a blistering critique of progressivism and liberalism while advocating for Unitarian Universalism to draw more from anarchist, anti-fascist, and radical sources in articulating a theology to oppose the rising neo-Confederate totalitarianism of the current President. So, I buy nice cloths knowing that by putting on a certain persona I can better reach a certain segment of the population. Is this hypocritical or manipulative? Probably, but no more so than anyone else—be they performer, banker, or organizer--who adopts, consciously or not, a persona—a set of cloths, a particular aesthetic—to communicate that they are part of a particular community or advocate for a certain set of politics. Call it champagne socialism, if you like, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment and it seems to make me more effective.
Jul 18, 2019
This morning my parents and I had breakfast with John Ambler. John is a member of my congregation and a retired professor of political science. He spent his career at Rice teaching about and researching French politics. He and his wife Joyce spend part of each summer in Paris. Since we were all in town at the same time, we thought it would be nice to meet up, though Joyce ultimately wasn’t able to join us. We ate at a delightful cafe in the Marais—fresh orange juice and a croissant for me and my parents, a coffee for John and my father, and hot chocolate for my Mom. Our conversation touched on a number of personal topics and then turned to French politics and the global political situation.
I shared with John my account of my conversation with the CNT-SO militant FD yesterday. He offered his perspective on the yellow vest movement. He said that it was comprised of people who felt that they had been left behind by French society—primarily rural people and those from small cities. He also said that while it was not allied with the Left it had not been captured by the Right. Instead, it operates outside of the traditional categories of French politics.
We also spoke about the failure of French socialism. In his view, the central problem was that even when they won power the French socialists still had to operate within a global capitalist system. When François Mitterrand came to power in 1981, he set about nationalizing a number of industries. Banks and capital writ large responded by engaging in a capital strike—they began to remove money from France and took business away from the country. The economy took a severe beating and, as a result, Mitterrand was unable to live up to his promises. A similar thing happened, John said, when François Hollande came to power—the external power of capital prevented the socialist government from pursuing any sort of anti-capitalist program.
John’s account reminded me of the old debate between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. Stalin argued that socialism is possible in one country. Trotsky countered that the strength of global capital is such that in order for socialism to succeed it must pursue the complete destruction of global capital and a situation of permanent revolution. Otherwise it will succumb to capital.
The history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries seems to suggest that the actual answer to this question is... it depends. Anti-capitalist communities can survive, it appears, in particular situations on the political, economic, and social margins. The Zapatista movement and the Rojava commune both have managed to create space for mass anti-capitalist communities whose internal economic, political, and social structures are far more radical than anything the French socialists could muster. However, they are so far from the centers of economic and political power that they appear to pose little structural threat to capitalism—which would not be true of France if Mitterrand had succeeded in his socialist project. The mere scale of France would have proved a significant challenge to capitalism if it had successfully created a socialist economy.
From there our conversation wandered to cover two more points. The first was another challenge that the Left faces: How to deal with automation? The second was about weakest point in the global economy, transit. Automation opens up all sorts of questions about what work is, how much work is available, whether working people will be able to have middle income jobs, and economic productivity. It has proven to be a significant challenge to the labor movement and provided capitalists with a crucial tool in undermining unions. Transit—particularly shipping—is central to the current itineration of capitalism. Most of manufacturing is built on just-in-time shipping. This means that transit workers have the power to significantly disrupt factory work by quickie strikes rather than protracted struggles. This is a possibility for working class resistance to capital that has largely been unexplored.
John is in his mid-eighties. We more-or-less ended the conversation with him telling me that it was up to me, my generation, and those younger than me to figure out if it was possible to find answers to the questions of socialism in one country and automation. Those are my words, not his, but I think that they capture the essence of our conversation.
Jul 18, 2019
Today I met up with two anarchists to discuss French and American politics and social movements. I first met MN almost fifteen years ago when we part of the organizing committee for the Industrial Workers of the World Centenary in Chicago. He is currently splitting his time between Paris, where his partner works, and the United States. He is no longer a member of the IWW but he remains active in radical politics. He works as a house painter.
I met FD three years ago when I was in Paris on my way to an academic conference in Toulouse. He is a militant with the French anarcho-syndicalist union CNT-SO. He is a teacher and is currently finishing a PhD in philosophy.
Both MN and FD are about my age and, like me, both men started participating in the anarchist movement when they were in their late teens or early twenties. Much of our conversation focused on the present state of the French anarchist movement and the overall political situation in Europe and the United States. We also spent a little time discussing common acquittances or our previous collaborations.
France has a long anarchist history but in recent decades its anarchist movement has been relatively small. The General Confederation of Labor, or CGT, is effectively France’s largest labor union. It was originally founded by anarchists in the late nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century it was dominated by the Communist Party. The CNT-SO, or National Confederation of Labor, Workers Solidarity, is one of two anarcho-syndicalist labor unions in France today. Both are small and both exist because of a split in the historic French CNT which was formed in 1940s by anarchists who left the CGT and Spanish exiles.
The split in the French CNT occurred within the last fifteen years. It was over the issue of whether or not the union should have paid staff. This is a controversy that was emerged in almost every single anarcho-syndicalist union with more than a few hundred members over the last twenty years. The people who went onto form CNT-SO believed that paid staff were necessary to do certain kinds of work—legal work, for instance—while those who formed CNT-France rejected paid staff of any kind. I believe that in advanced capitalist economies paid organizers are a necessity for radical organizations to exist and sustain themselves on any kind of scale. That, however, is another blog post for another day.
During our conversation, FD told me he thinks that French society as a whole has moved significantly to the Right in the last twenty years. He also said that the radical Left is largely moribund or bereft of new ideas. The May Day parade in Paris, for instance, might attract tens of thousands of people but they all follow the same parade route that they have followed for the past fifty years. More concerning, he felt that the socialists and the anarchists were mostly without new ideas. The Socialist Party is rapidly losing influence with French politics and, he argued, many contemporary Leftist political leaders were no longer anti-capitalist—they look to American style liberalism as an inspiration rather than social democracy or the broader socialist tradition.
We spent a lot of time discussing our personal histories with the IWW and CNT-SO. I made the point that the IWW has increased in size over the last two decades. It has grown from a few hundred members to perhaps as many as three or four thousand. Despite a troubled history of interpersonal conflict, significant structural and cultural challenges, and its small size it has been an innovative force within the American labor movement. Its campaigns at Starbucks and Jimmy Johns proved that fast food workers could be organized. And its Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has not only proved that imprisoned workers can be organized, it has helped coordinate some of the largest prison strikes in United States history.
MN shared his reasons for no longer belonging to the IWW—I can’t, as the senior minister of a congregation with twenty employees, I am no longer eligible for membership. He said that his repeated experiences of interpersonal conflict within the union had led him to believe that the IWW would never overcome its structural issues. He also said that he gained invaluable skills from his time with the IWW and that his experiences with the union had helped him to grow into an effective organizer in other contexts.
FD had a different perspective. He said that his experience with the CNT-SO had taught him that anarcho-syndicalism was probably never going to be a mass movement in France. But he had learned that it was the job of the far left to organize the margins. Anarchists are best suited to organize people who other groups—be they labor unions or political groupings—are not willing to organize. They have the most success organizing amongst those who are the farthest margins of society. In France, this has largely meant organizing the migrants who in hotels and in the hospitality industry. He shared with me that at the moment there is a strike organized by migrant hotel workers who are members of CNT-SO in Marseille. It has been getting a significant amount of press and bringing some good energy into the CNT-SO.
Jul 8, 2019
The rest of July and through early August I will be traveling in Europe with my parents and son. My son and I are tagging along on my father’s study abroad class for Michigan State University. He has taught the course on-and-off since 1980. My mother has accompanied him all but one time. When my brother and I were children we went together with my parents as a family. Since graduating from high school, I have joined my parents on four of their trips to Europe. One of these trips was with both of my children and my then wife. Another was with just my son. My daughter has also traveled with her grandparents on her own.
My father’s class is on photography. As a professor of journalism and a photographer, he has taught two generations of students photography through a combination of portfolio projects, gallery and museum visits, lectures and tours. The lectures and tours are frequently given by leading European photographers--many whom became, over time, some my family’s dearest friends.
This summer my son and I are again joining my parents. My son is now twelve which means that he is old enough to really appreciate aspects of such a trip in ways he wasn’t able to before. Along the way we will be visiting many of the family friends that we have made over the years. These will include artists and art critics, friends of mine from my time at Harvard, childhood friends, and members of the international anarchist community. After reading Mark Lilla’s article in the New York Review of Books on the French New Right I attempted to contact a number of people he describes. So, there’s a slim chance I might also connect with some young French right-wing intellectuals.
This year, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to publish excerpts from my journals on my blog. My blog posts will generally be unpolished first drafts--taken almost straight from my journal. They will include not only my reflections on the trip but my thoughts on what I am reading and, possibly, both the profound ecological, economic, political, and social crisis humanity is in the midst of and my thoughts on the role that the Unitarian Universalist church might play in confronting it. In general, when I write about people who are public figures, I will use their names. When I write about people who are not, I will use initials.
My son and I arrive in Paris on July 8th. We will be spending our first night in France at the Paris apartment of family friends Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. On July 9th we meet up with my parents and travel to Arles for the Rencontres d'Arles. I have been to Arles once before and I am particularly excited about this year’s festival because family friend Libuse Jarcovjakova’s work is being highlighted. On Friday it was featured in the New York Times and Guardian. On the 16th we head back to Paris for ten days. We will be visiting with a host of folks there before heading on July 26th to Sers, a village in Nouvelle-Aquitaine where Gilles and Nicole have a home. We will be there until August 2nd when we fly to London. We will spend six nights in London, including my 43rd birthday, before flying home to Houston on the 9th. I am back in the pulpit on the 11th with a question box sermon.
Jul 29, 2017
Yesterday the New York Times brought news that famed photo editor John Morris died at the age of 100. Morris was the photo editor of the New York Times during the Vietnam War and made the decision to publish two of the most famous images of the war on the newspaper’s front page--the informally titled “Napalm Girl” by Huỳnh Công Út and Eddie Adams's "Saigon Execution." He made sure that these images appeared on the top fold of the paper, which meant they were seen even by people who didn't build the Times. He was Robert Capa’s photo editor for many years and the founding photo editor for Magnum Photo. You can read the Times’s obituary of John Morris here. They've also made a nice video tribute.
John was a long time friend of my parents. I believe they met him through their friends Nicole Ewenczyk and Gilles Perrin--my father collaborated on a book with them a few years ago. Last summer, while I was visiting them in Paris, I had the pleasure of attending one of his lectures. John’s talk focused on his century of experience as a photo editor. He spoke about his commitment to pacifism and his belief that photo editing could be a kind of anti-war activism. The selection of images that highlighted the horrors of war, he hoped, could engender empathy for the victims of violence and inspire people to oppose their government’s involvement in international conflicts.
After John’s lecture we all had dinner at the little bistro across the street from his studio. I was seated next to him and we talked about the civil war in Syria. A few years ago I penned a piece for the Huffington Post arguing against military intervention after the Assad government used chemical weapons. I have since had some ambivalence about the question of military intervention and come to support, in principle, the Kurdish anarchist movement, Democratic Union Party. I have never been convicted of absolute pacifism and, as in the case of my longstanding support for the Zapatistas, believe that organized violent resistance to various forms of fascism and totalitarianism can sometimes be the only way to arrest them.
John did not agree. After his experiences in World War II, he felt that violence always beget further violence. Any support of a military movement in Syria, he believed, would only extend the conflict and cause further suffering. I suspect that his position was also tempered by his Quakerism.
Unfortunately, the bistro was too loud for us to converse more in-depth. Nonetheless, it was a memorable experience. It deepened my already deep respect for the photographers, and their editors, who strive to document our world as political and ethical acts. Social documentary photography is an art form and art in all its forms can be a powerful act of resistance to the viciousness of human brutality.
Aug 28, 2016
Note: I recently have become involved with the Industrial Workers of the World's Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. I am serving as their contact person for faith-based organizing. It is a volunteer role and one of things that I am doing as part of it is preaching some in support of the September 9, 2016 National Prisoner Strike. The following sermon was the first I preached in support of the movement. I presented it at the First Parish in Needham, Unitarian Universalist, on August 28, 2016.
It is a pleasure to be with you this morning. Your congregation features prominently in one of my favorite books of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theology, A House for Hope. John Buehrens, your former minister and the co-author of that book, has something to do with me being here today. He was a strong advocate for youth ministry when he was the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I had the good fortune to meet him when I was sixteen. He encouraged me both along my path to the ministry and my path to the academy. I also have fond memories of the worship services your present minister Catie Scudera led during her time at Harvard. And I congratulate in calling someone who will no doubt be one of the guiding lights of the next generation of Unitarian Universalists. So, there is a strange way in which even though I have never spent a Sunday with you before I feel as if I already know you a little.
Such familiarity, I suspect, is rather one sided. Most of, maybe all of, you just know me as the guest preacher. The last in the long line of summer preachers trying to bring a little spirit to Sunday morning before your regular worship services resume next month.
Now me, I am something of circuit rider. Right now I preach at more than a dozen congregations a year while I am finishing up my PhD at Harvard. As I travel around I have the privilege of getting something of the breadth of our Unitarian Universalist tradition. I think since I started in the ministry more than a decade ago I have lead worship at close to a hundred Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Those congregations include the some of the largest and some of the smallest in our tradition.
My peripatetic career causes me to divide Unitarian Universalism crudely into two wings: the liberal and the abolitionist. Unitarian Universalism is occasionally called a liberal religion. This label refers to our understanding of human nature. Historically we have understood human beings to contain within them, in the words of William Ellery Channing, “the likeness to God.” As contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker has explained, this does not mean that we think human beings are necessarily godlike. Instead, it suggests that rather than being born innately flawed or depraved, as orthodox Christianity has long taught, we are born with the capacity to choose and to become. Reflecting upon the suffering that we inflict upon each other Parker writes, “We are the cause and we can be the cure.” In this sense liberal religion means a recognition that much of what is wrong in the world was wrought by human hands. By joining our hands and hearts together we can, and we do, heal much of that harm.
I am not thinking of the liberal religion of Channing when I say that Unitarian Universalism can be crudely divided into two wings. I suspect that if you are here this Sunday morning your view of human nature is at somewhat similar to Channing’s and Rebecca Parker’s. Whether politically you are a Democrat or a Republican, an anarchist or a socialist, a liberal, libertarian or a conservative, if you are a Unitarian Universalist are a liberal religionist.
My division of our community into the abolitionists and the liberals focuses on our attitudes towards social reform. The majority liberal tradition believes in incremental and pragmatic social change. The social institutions and practices that exist, exist. When confronted with the intractable problems of America’s justice system liberals think the key question is: how can we make this system work better for everyone? How can we ensure that police are not racist? That everyone gets a fair trial and that prisons are humane?
Abolitionists demand the impossible. Rather than seeking to reform existing institutions they dream of creating new ones. Instead of asking how existing social institutions and practices can be reshaped they ask: what are those social institutions and practices for? In the face of a justice system that appears patently unjust they ask: Why we do have the system in the first place? What is its essential social function? Is it meeting this social function? Is this social function something we want met?
I place myself in the abolitionist camp. The essential difference between the two wings is that abolitionists see social institutions and practices as historically constituted while liberals take them as more permanent. A less fancy way to put that is that abolitionists think that the things we do and the institutions we create come from somewhere, will only last for so long, and will eventually be replaced by something else. Liberals focus on fixing what is now. Abolitionists imagine what might be.
This morning I want to talk with you about supporting the upcoming nation-wide prison strike. Prior to today, how many of you had heard about it? On September 9th people in prisons across the country will refuse to work. By withdrawing their labor from the prison system they hope that they will be able end prison slavery. They use the words prison slavery intentionally to draw attention to the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. That is the amendment that outlawed chattel slavery. It states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party has been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States.”
The bold hope is that by challenging prison slavery prisoners can challenge the prison system itself. Prisons in the United States rely on prison labor to exist. Consider the following. There are about 2.2 million prisoners in the United States today. Of these, about 1.1 million, or roughly half, work in prison. They serve food, do janitorial work, and labor in offices. They also maintain public parks and roads and manufacture products for both the government and for private industry. The United States military, Victoria’s Secret, Walmart, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and McDonald’s all benefit from prison labor. All of the license plates in the state of Alabama are made by prisoners. They are paid as little as 15 cents an hour.
Prison labor is exempted from most labor standards. Prisoners are not afforded the same rights to safe workplaces that you and I enjoy. They do not get vacations or unemployment benefits. They do not accrue Social Security. The federal courts have ruled that prisoners wages can be set at any level, including zero cents an hour. Not only do they not get minimum wage. They can be made to work for nothing.
All of this means that without the labor of prisoners, prisons will not run. It is the brave hope of the organizers of the September 9th national strike that by withdrawing their labor they can radically challenge, transform and perhaps even abolish the American prison system.
Now, I just gave you a lot of information. You might feel a little overwhelmed by it. You might also think the situation is justified. Prisoners work for nothing, you could think, because they owe a debt to society. They are in prison to repay that debt and their work is part of their repayment.
I want challenge that logic. I could challenge it, as so many have, by pointing out the gross inequities of the prison system. I could point out that black men are imprisoned at roughly seven times the rate of white men or that Hispanics are two and a half times more likely to be in prison than whites. But that is a liberal logic and it suggests that the fundamental problem with the prison system is that it is unfair.
The problem with the system is that it exists at all. I want to let you in on a secret. Many, perhaps most, maybe even all of us are potential prisoners. The primary difference between me and someone on the inside is not that I have not committed crimes. The difference is that I have not been caught. Everyone I know has broken some law or another. Plenty of people, including Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, have flouted this country’s drug laws at some point. Most business owners I know have skirted regulatory. And I rather suspect that the majority of middle income and upper income middle people out there make somewhat dodgy claims about portions of their tax returns. It is virtually impossible not to. Our society is so codified that actually following all of the laws cannot be done. If you doubt me try to follow every single traffic law exactly next time you drive. In April make your way through all 74,608 pages of the US tax code to make sure you are properly taking all of your exemptions.
We also know that the majority of white collar criminals never go to jail. No one has yet been imprisoned for causing the financial crisis of 2008. Yet it is common knowledge that corporate criminal malfeasance was a root cause of the Great Recession. When workers die because CEOs flout workplace safety laws CEOs rarely serve jail time. Even if they do their punishment is light in comparison to the punishments society metes out to other prisoners. Don Blankenship, who as CEO of Massey Energy was held responsible for the preventable deaths of twenty-nine miners in the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, was sentenced to one year in prison. If the social function of prisons is to protect society they clearly fail in doing so.
All of us are potential prisoners. Many of us are not in prison simply because we have not been caught doing something that has been deemed illegal. For a moment, I want you to imagine yourself a prisoner. Imagine that when you were a college student you were caught with some of the drugs you were experimenting with. Imagine that you made an honest but significant mistake on your taxes and somehow ran afoul of the IRS. Imagine that there was one time when you had one drink to many. Rather than taking a taxi home you recklessly decided to risk it. You were pulled over by the police and wound up in jail. Whatever the case, imagine.
Imagine spending a year or two years or five in a controlled setting. Told when to wake up, when to sleep, when to work. Imagine only eating prison food. If you are lucky it might be a roll, a piece of fruit, some peanut butter. Maybe the prison has a proper cafeteria. Maybe you are really unlucky. The prison contracts its commissary out to a private company. What they feed you is unfit to eat, full of insects and rodent droppings.
Imagine witnessing the daily brutality: routine beatings; men and women extracted from their cells by trained dogs; and persistent sexual violence. Every year one out of ten prisoners is sexually assaulted, half of them by prison guards. Many of the practices exposed in Abu Gharib are routine practices in American prisons that were simply exported aboard.
Imagine that the courts and the legislatures have fallen silent to your many pleas for justice. Imagine that the media rarely reports what happens to people inside prison walls. If you can imagine these things then you might begin to understand why prisoners have called for a national prison strike. The words of prisoner organizer Kinetik Justice may have resonance for you. He said, “These strikes are our method for challenging mass incarceration. As we understand it, the prison system is a continuation of the slave system.”
And like a nineteen-century abolitionist you might say it is time to end the slave system. The time to end it is not tomorrow, or next year, or in the next decade but today. Perhaps we will have to replace it with something. Perhaps we believe that there are some people who must be removed from society for sometime. Perhaps that sentiment is wrong. Whatever the case, the nineteenth-century abolitionist position was not to ask what will come after chattel slavery? It was say that chattel slavery must end. The abolitionist position today is the same. It is not to ask what will come after the prison system but how will the prison be brought to an end.
Whether you consider yourself an abolitionist or a liberal, let me offer you a few things you can do to support the September 9th national prison strike. You can educate yourself and others about the history and function of prisons. Either in your congregation or on your own, organize a group to read books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Caught: the Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics by Marie Gottschalk, and the Golden Gulag by Ruth Gilmore. Contact the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and begin corresponding with prisoners, offering them expressions of solidarity. Donate or raise money for the above groups. Invite former prisoners to speak to your congregation. And, finally, consider passing a congregational resolution in support of the prison strike. It is likely to be but one in a wave of many.
As you consider these actions, let us remember that we are all potential prisoners. In the hopes that we might do so, I offer these words from the great Eugene Debs when he sentenced to prison for war resisting. He said, “...years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
May we hear these words in our hearts. Amen and Blessed Be.
Jun 15, 2016
A few years ago I included a piece titled “It Takes More Than Direct Action” in the column I used to edit for the Industrial Worker called “Workers Power.” The good folks who edit Solidaridad, the Spanish language blog of the Industrial Workers of the World, have seen fit to publish a translation of it: “Se necesita más que la acción directa.” It’s the first text of mine that’s been translated into another language, which is kind of fun. The piece, incidentally, started as the charge to the congregation at the ordination of Julia Hamilton; think of it as evidence of the long arm of liberation theology.
Oct 21, 2014
Recently Juan Conatz put a copy of my 2007 article "The Chicago Couriers Union: a lesson for IWW solidarity union organizers" up on libcom. The piece appeared in the Industrial Worker and served as the basis for my “The Chicago Couriers Union: A Case Study in Solidarity Unionism,” which was published in Working USA. You can read the Industrial Worker piece here.
Dec 21, 2013
This past summer I had the opportunity to spend a few days with members of the Confederación General del Trabajo in Barcelona. With a membership of about 60,000, the CGT is the largest anarcho-syndicalist labor union in the world. It split with the more famous Confederación Nacional del Trabajo in the late 1980s over the issue of participation in government sponsored works councils. Without getting into the details, this means that the CGT can be thought of as the more reformist minded of the two unions. Its members see themselves as trying to build an anarcho-syndicalist capable of threatening 21st century capitalism.
The people in CGT that I met with were generous enough to give me a rather large pile of their literature. I’m hoping to translate some of it into English over the next couple of weeks, while I am on break from my studies. My initial offering is the CGT’s 2013 platform of demands in response to the financial crisis in the European Union. I speak, read and write pretty good Spanish but I am not an experienced translator. I apologize for the bits of the translation that aren’t super clear.
The CGT’s Proposals and Alternatives to the Crisis
Repeal all legislation and reforms that take away rights from the population (Labor Reform, Easy Firing, Collective Bargaining, Pensions, Constitutional Reform, Immigration Law, the projected law about abortion...)*
Divide the wealth. Economic protection, including a social salary, sufficient for the millions of unemployed persons to live with dignity.
Protection from the evictions. A moratorium on them until the end of the crisis and the creation of a social program that guarantees access to housing. Assistance for the social spaces of autogestion.**
Divide the work so everyone has work. Reduce the working day, reduce the age of retirement, prohibition of the EREs, of contracts and subcontracts, of overtime, piecework and grants that hide jobs. Elimination of the ETTs.***
Autogestion for the workers in the factories recuperated from capital.
No to the privatization of Health, Education, Transportation, Communication, Energy, Water... Expropriation of the factories that were public before and that provide the basic needs of society.
Guaranteed universal access to the public services to all people with and without papers. [i.e. whether or not they are citizens or legal immigrants]
The right for all people to move freely.
Equal distribution of municipal civil work. Development of the help to the dependencies.****
The right to free time and a balance between work life and family and social life.
Financial reform for those that are paid the most and who have the most. An increase on the taxes on large businesses and those with great fortunes. Persecution of financial fraud. Reduction of IVA.*****
A public bank owned and under social control that allows families to have access to its resources.
No payment of the debt or its interest. Audit of the debt by a participatory process under civic control with a first step to the annulment of all of the illegitimate debt. Demand of penal responsibilities for those that caused the crisis.
Use of public money for meeting the needs of the people and not for rescuing the banks.
The closing of the financial casinos and tax havens.
Liberty for all militant syndicalist or anarchist political prisoners. No to repression and criminalization.
Their model of democracy is not good for us. Our position is for a new model of direct democracy, participatory and from below.
Rejection of the European Union with its institutions that drive the politics and policies of neoliberalism.
Abandonment of a political economy aimed at the unlimited growth. It needs to be replaced by another that follows the limits of the planet’s natural resources.
A solution to energy, climate and biodiversity crisis that threatens the survival of millions of people.
*This is a list of laws that have been passed that reduce the rights of the population in response to the economic crisis. I didn’t translate the phrase “exigencia de las 35 peonadas para cobrar el subsidio” because I am not sure exactly what it means. I think it refers to a reduction in guaranteed wages or minimum wage.
**Autogestion is a word with no exact English equivalent. It could loosely be translated self-managed. But it implies an act of self-creation as well. The last sentence of this paragraph might alternatively be translated: Assistance for self-managed social spaces or self-managed cooperatives.
***ERE is a particular aspect of Spanish labor law. Here, I think, it refers to laying people off as redundant. ETTs are Spanish temporary agencies.
****Not sure of the last sentence. The original reads: Desarrollo de las ayudas a la Dependencia.
*****IVA is value added tax. It is kind of like sales tax.