“Occupy Watertown” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – January 29, 2012
Call to Worship – from Jimmy Carter
I have one life and one chance to make it count for something . . . I’m free to choose what that something is, and the something I’ve chosen is my faith. Now my faith goes beyond theology and religion and requires considerable work and effort. My faith demands – this is not optional – my faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I can, whenever I can, for a long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.
Reading – “Spider’s Two Feasts” An African Folk Tale
Sermon – “Occupy Watertown” by Mark W. Harris
A few years ago we had a student minister who was also a venture capitalist. I would never disparage a colleague, and so I am not going to comment on his skills as a minister, but I do want to comment about my own projections about him. When he came here as student minister, I didn’t like him, and for the two years he was here, I struggled to accept him. But this acceptance had nothing to do with his personality, his background, or his love for Unitarian Universalism, it had to do with his income. I disliked him because he was rich. This has been a long standing issue for me, representing conflicted feelings about money. Part of it with this intern was that he was not leaving his venture capitalism behind for a life of economic austerity and spiritual enlightenment. In fact he hoped to keep his old profession, keep his income, and acquire this new one profession, which happened to be my life’s work. This violated my very concept of ministry, which is that you devote your entire life to the church, to ministry, to a vision of living that models justice and compassion for all. It is not a job, it is a life’s calling. Could I reconcile wealth with ministry?
It is an interesting question. When I was a minister in Milton we had an active clergy group. One of the members was an orthodox Jew, who believed that the rabbi or minister or priest who served in a community ought to be the wealthiest person in the congregation. The rabbi’s theory was that if you are rich, then you do not have to worry about material needs, and you can take care of everybody else. But if you are poor then you have to worry all the time about cars that run, and putting food on the table, to say nothing about saving for a college education or retirement. His theory was that you could not take care of others if you were poor, because you had to worry all the time about taking care of yourself and your family. I didn’t buy into his theory because I believed that, while I thought clergy should make a living wage, and be able to retire before they have to preach from a rocking chair, part of me thought clergy should not be rich. For me it was about choice, and it appeared to me that both the rabbi and our former student wanted it both ways. They wanted to be like spider and attend both feasts.
My choice about my life’s work occurred because as a child, I loved the experience (not the theology) of being part of a church community, and later that love was fed by a vision of peace and equality that were embodied in the anti-war movement during Vietnam, and the anti-racism of the civil rights struggles. My faith became embodied in the history and ideals of Unitarian Universalism. That congruence of factors has led to more than thirty years in the liberal ministry. My father gave me a stark choice which would have led to the financial comfort he and my mother had provided for me. He asked me to come back home after college and run his business. I said No. He had grown up poor and working class, and had achieved financial success. I specifically believed that I would derive meaning in life, not from making money, but by trying to change the world to make it more just.
The idea of choice is embodied in the familiar story called the Town Mouse and the City Mouse that was first told by Aesop. This reminds us that both rich and poor suffer through difficult times, and that longing for what someone else has will not really be helpful to us, but that we are better off giving thanks for what we have. Most of the time I am able to do that. In that story the town mouse comes to visit the country mouse, and finds she only has barley and grain for dinner. He convinced the country mouse that she did not live well, and should see the finer things in life in town. This was before mice realized that barley and grain were the best local and organic choices, and thus the greener and healthier way to live.
Once in town, she saw the plenty that was stored in the kitchen cupboard, including brown sugar that they nibbled on. The country mouse had never tasted anything so delicious, but just then the cook came in, and the town mouse whispered, “Run.” They dashed off to a little hole in the wall where the country mouse had to recover from a terrible fright. After the cook was gone, they went back in to the kitchen so the town mouse could show off more delectable items. This time the country mouse was able to sample some dried prunes on the shelf. Then, all of a sudden, there was a scratching and a loud Meow! When the town mouse told her that this was a cat with a reputation for being the best mouser in town, the poor country mouse said, “let’s not go back there again.” After this second troubling experience, the town mouse said, there are still more wonders to taste in the cellar. In the lower reaches of the house, they saw barrels of butter, bags of cheese, and hanging smoked sausage. The country mouse saw a particular tasty morsel of cheese that for some reason was out of its bag. Just as she was about to take a delicious bite, the town mouse yelled, “Stop! That is a trap. If you bite that cheese, something will snap on your head, and you are dead.” With this, the country mouse looked at the cheese, the trap and the town mouse, and said, this is too much. I would rather eat barley in peace, then be frightened all the time, and so the country mouse went home.
And so by choice, some of us opt to live a more simple life style. We do not accumulate possessions, and thirst for more. Yet we do make many decisions based on limited funds. I am lucky that I can do work I love, earn enough money to survive, and while I do not have the opulence of many town mice, I have most of what I want. People still make other kinds of choices. While I rejected the option to run a business in order to run a church, my oldest son, has opted to choose a life’s work where he runs a business, and clearly makes more money than I do. Perhaps this is not unusual. Just this week at a minister’s meeting, a colleague was telling me how his congregation opted to rent their parsonage, so that he could buy a condominium, and build some equity and have a place to live in retirement. He got the loan for the purchase from his son, who earns a higher salary than he does.
The problem with simply affirming that everyone has choices, is that everybody does not have choices. Most of us who are part of church communities do not want for anything, but many people in the world do. This is why many of us became interested in the various Occupy movements. We have seen, especially over the last generation a growing gap between rich and poor that has separated all of us even more from the have nots, and reinforced segregation. As the Boston Globe reported, “wealth has become increasingly concentrated, creating a smaller group of wealthy families than ever before, and further we live in one of the least equal metropolitan areas in the country. This also reinforces the differences in income between whites, and African Americans and Latinos. Our region’s demographics are changing, and many of those who suffer are children. The various Occupy movements identified that America is divided into the 1 % who own much of the wealth, and the other 99%, where most of us sit. Or do we? The demographics at the First Parish of Watertown are considerably different from those at the First Parish of Brookline, where that former intern of ours, the venture capitalist, now serves. He told me recently that he had surveyed his congregation to find that they are the 1%. This means that a considerable group there earns, at least by my standards, exorbitant wealth. How do we feel about this? How do we address income inequality, not merely in society, but among Unitarian Universalists?
There is a deep conflict within our faith around these issues. First Parish churches in Massachusetts were among the elite historically, part of an order of power and wealth that has been called America’s first establishment. Many of the clergy in colonial America liked being part of this ordered society where their positions were not threatened. They enjoyed wealth and privilege, and some opposed the American Revolution when it threatened to upset the class order, and promoted the idea that all were created equal. Some of the foundations of democracy were inherited from their Puritan ancestors, but those same Puritans also read from a Bible that contained 100’s of instances of the use of the word ”tyrant” for unfettered political power, knew persecution, and furthermore set up communities where the towns took responsibility for looking after their own, and even gave grants of land to those who were experiencing misfortune. Maybe we feel an inner conflict, too, of wanting more economic power so we can do everything we want, and yet knowing we hurt others, as we engage in the competitive climb of envy, success and greed. Could it be that part of the source of my issue with wealth has to do with how clergy are valued in society? When we are the elite, we have power and respect and are valued in a society built upon capitalism. Do I long to have that kind of privilege again? While I do want people to value what I do, I made this choice knowing that I did not occupy the halls of power anymore. But I did make the choice with the idea that I could try to make a difference in a society that I knew was unfair, and far too often disrespected and devalued the poor.
I was part of a generation that believed we could change the world to make it more fair, and it is disheartening to see how far we have gone the other way. Many of the social programs of the past, were taken away years ago by a Democratic President, and poverty has increased ever since. Both parties seem like proponents of unfettered capitalism, the tyrant of power in our time. This is a good enough reason alone to oppose Walmart’s attempt to come into Watertown, not merely because they have horrible employments practices, or sell more junk products that we don’t need made by slaves in China. Corporations like Walmart are richer and more powerful than most countries. I remember when my father incorporated his little retail oil business when I was in elementary school. It gave his company greater rights than a person because it assured that it would be continue even after his death. It was more than personal for him, and points to the travesty of defining corporations as persons that our Supreme Court has foistered upon us. This is yet another example of how special interests are allowed to spend whatever they want to control our evaporating democratic way of governing. My favorite way of describing this new challenge was shown by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfied: “I’m Ben, I’m a person. I’m Jerry, I’m a person. Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream? Not a person.” All working people and retired workers are challenged to not allow our voices to be drowned out.
One of the great strengths of liberal religion has been its assertion of liberty of conscience. God loves and affirms every person, and within this theological belief is the understanding that every one deserves equal rights and opportunities. Now in our own time, this belief has led to our involvement in the civil rights, women’s liberation and gay and lesbian rights movements, and the conviction that every individual deserves these rights and freedoms, and we protest loudly when these rights are violated. Yet that belief in individual freedom was also once identified with taking advantge of the opportunities you are given to be as succusful as you can be in this capitalist system. Our own Ralph Waldo Emerson trusted self-reliant individuals because he believed that wealth brings its own checks and balances. Who among us would still affirm that? It seems to echo Emerson when we hear, don’t regulate the corporations, they are people. Don’t tax them, they create more jobs and wealth. What are the limits of freedom on wealthy individuals and on corporations? Because many of us have enjoyed, at least historically, the fruits of individual financial attainments, it was rare to see liberals criticize the economic system itself. Certainly no politician would be foolish enough to utter the word socialism, as we see some deluded candidates calling our President. Yet greater regulation, a fairer tax structure, and a renewed social service safety net is what we need to begin to bring us back to some measure of greater economic equality.
I don’t know if it is true now, but when Romania was a Communnist country, every Unitarian minister no matter where he served (they were all hes then), or what size the congregation, received the same salary. Of course they lived under a horrible dictatorship, which is thankfully gone. But why not receive equal pay? Does someone in a large church work harder than I do? Of course, it is the capitalist system we live under and most of us have accommodated to it. My colleagues include venture capitalists who work in such places as Brookline. That is the individual part of our religious heritage. But there is also a democratic vision that is larger than individualism, and it has do with drawing up those equal people who happen to earn different amounts into a larger whole. Because of that vision of unity, we weep for those who are hungry, those who are in prison, and all those who are oppressed by forces of greed whether we live in Watertown or Brookline, Malden or Weston. Religiously speaking, we have a tradition that calls us to take care of the poor in whatever ways we can. And here in Watertown we try our hardest to do so with offerings, giving boxes, and volunteer programs to serve meals or pick up leftover bread. These charitable acts are of benefit to those in need, but there is another part of the religious vision that we also need to address.
Helping those who are hungry responds to a need, but that response does not include the expressed truth that this system is profoundly unfair, and is producing more and more homeless and hungry. We need to express the truth that the system needs to be transformed into something that is fairer. William Sloane Coffin used to say, “Charity is finding a baby drowning in a stream and pulling it out; charity is pulling out a second baby, and a third baby that came floating down the stream; but justice is going upstream, finding out who’s throwing the babies in, and stopping the evil at its source.” We need to see the difference between charity and justice, and address how we can begin to think and act in justice seeking ways. The churches have to help the homeless, Coffin said, but the ultimate answer to homelessness is homes, not shelters. And so we must consider the causes of economic injustice, something that is hard to face, but necessary, if we are to truly envision the prophetic words of Amos, that justice would roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Here at First Parish within our congregation I think we do a wonderful job of mirroring what a just community could look like. We have people in single family homes and apartments. We have people who make a fair amount of money, and those who make very little. I see little of judging those who are worthy based on merit. Here we don’t interpret exceptionalism to mean we are better than everybody else, but that we want to see everyone as exceptional and beautiful. We treat each other as equals – we welcome all, and listen to all. Being here helps me feel that vision of unity, and so embrace poor and rich. In my book Elite, I tell the story of Eunice Richardson, a working class woman from New Hampshire, who was also a Universalist. After she was widowed, she took work as a seamstress, a very low paying job. He needed help from her church financially because she was so poor. While the church did offer her charity, she was not allowed to participate in the women’s alliance. Since she was a charity case, she could not offer charity to others. She was stigmatized, and put in a category, but moreover made into something other than the group she wanted to be part of. It became the privileged acting upon the less advantaged. Justice means helping her with her need, but it also means that there must be a vision for how we can all be together on an equal footing in one beloved community.
Because most of us enjoy the comforts of life, it is harder for us to say something is wrong, but our voices must be heard, if we truly believe in the social demands of our faith. Too many people are like the spider who was squeezed from both ends. We are trapped between our desires. We also want to find that balance between individual freedom and a vision for the whole, and that squeezes us as a religious movement diverting our convictions. We help those who are being squeezed in many ways, and now may that conviction to help, help us see who is doing the squeezing, and may we speak out and act in our communities and urge our legislators to loosen the rope, and protect all of us, the workers, the unemployed, the elderly – all of us who dream of economic justice for all.
Closing Words – from Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction
You risked your life, but what else have you ever risked? Have you ever risked disapproval? Have you ever risked economic security? Have you ever risked a belief? I see nothing particularly courageous in risking one’s life. So you lose it, you go to your hero’s heaven and everything is milk and honey ‘till the end of time. Right? You get your reward and suffer no earthly consequences. That’s not courage. Real courage is risking something you have to keep on living with, real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change or stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one’s clichés.