A Larger Faith

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Corporate Free Speech, Again

Turns out it's not simple. I really don't think corporations are people, and yet they are treated that way when it comes to the First Amendment. Teir contributions of money to political causes and to politicians are protected because they enable and amplify speech. They can't be people, because they do not have consciences. Their proper motive is profit, so their speech reflect a search for their own profit, and not the common good. Because they are brought into being to pursue profit, their speech doesn't even properly reflect the views of their shareholders as persons.

I found today's Opinionator in the New York Times particularly helpful: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/08/how-the-first-amendment-works/ although the dreary truth is that we are stuck with the results of highly refined legal redefinition of terms and reinterpretation of events.

I say, not people. I also say, the giving of money is not really speech but action, and actions can be regulated. Having our government turned into an instrument for promoting the profitability of companies cannot be a good thing.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Corporations, People, Rights, and Values

Apparently corporations are people, with first-amendment rights to participate in electoral campaigns, just like anyone else. True, they are treated in some ways as people, a way to limit the liability of Boards of Directors for their actions. This is important: it's probably one of the reasons for the popularity of corporations as a way of organizing business.

But look, corporations are collections of people. They are made up of workers and shareholders, in whom the true personhood and the rights associated with it are properly lodged. One of the arguments corporations used about income taxation, if I remember my economic history correctly, is that they are actually not people themselves, because look, they belong to these people who also pay taxes, so any tax on their corporate "personal" income would be a second tax on top of the tax the actual humans behind them pay. We ended up with a system that taxed corporate income at a lower rate, and not all of it, in effect asking them to pay for the privilege of being considered people under the law.

So for some purposes, corporations are people, but for taxation, they are not. I say, the right of using money to talk in political campaigns should be like the taxation thing. The people who make up the corporations have the right to express themselves. Having the corporation do it too is double expression, just as taxing corporate income is double taxation.

Should people who own corporate shares have double expression? That doesn't square with my values. In citizenship, it should be one person, one voice. That way, I get to say what I think, and I don't have to worry about whether the corporations in which I own stock say what I think or something else. It's more efficient, and it's the right thing to do.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Church and Community Change

They are starting a program to explore making Belfast a "Transition Town" of the kind that develops resilience for the coming changes of climate and energy use. I haven't read the book that goes with it yet, and as usual, I have to be at work during about half the discussion group meetings that are about to happen -- one of the perils of a line of work that requires meeting with people who have normal jobs during the day. But that book is on order, and I'll go when I can.

I have been reading another book, though, $20 Per Gallon, by Christopher Steiner, subtitled "How the inevitable rise in the price of gasoline will change our lives for the better." Steiner works for Forbes magazine, coming to business journalism with a background in engineering, so his investigative choices are interesting and his analysis is mostly sharp. He outlines the changes that the market system will bring into being as the price of petroleum products rises, giving some attention to the global warming question, but focusing mainly on changes in lifestyle that will come. Mass transit, dense urban centers, food production near point of use, rebirth of manufacturing.

Coupled with a reading of Jim Wallis' Rediscovering Values On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street, a Moral Compass for the New Economy, $20 Per Gallon opens some interesting vistas on the future.

The most important vista I see, through the lens of these two books and my own experience, is that we have some really important choices to make about our values and how we use them to shape our lives and communities. Change is coming. The big question: Is it going to be governed by the Wall Street ethos that considers demand and costs of production and not much else, or is it going to be governed by something more human- and planet- oriented?

Either way, it won't be a catastrophe. Still, I have become weary of realizing time and again that my body and mind are being used as ATM's for some corporation. I'm going to get to as many of those "Transition Town" meetings as I can and try to get a glimpse of an alternative.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Report from the Hermitage

It really is small, but it's not as small as Thoreau's cabin. It has inside plumbing, which is a good thing, because it's in town rather than out in the woods. But it's an experiment in living simply. Thoreau lived in a time of great cultural and economic change, the dawn of the industrial-commercial America we have lived in from that time to this. Now, that way seems to be in trouble, and something new begins to take shape. Thoreau stepped aside to look, and I find I am doing that too. But from a different kind of cabin.

Somebody asked, so I measured it: 300 square feet, with an additional unheated back room of perhaps 80 more, counting the closet space. That includes a bathroom, which Thoreau did not have, and room for lots more clothing than he would have found right ("Beware of all enterprises that require a new suit of clothes"). I have more chairs: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society, he said. He also had a bed people could sit on if there were more. I have a couch, plus a nice comfy rocking chair, and four chairs.

He had his fireplace for cooking, and drew water from the pond. I have a little kitchen with a stove, fridge, sink, and cupboards. I figure I can have three guests for a simple meal -- so far two is the most I've had for supper -- and five for sitting and conversing.

I have more books than he did, most of them stashed at my office nearby. Although I have been reflecting a bit on The Iliad, I will not be reading it in the original Greek as he did. I have my computer, and radio, though I'm living without TV in its usual forms. Electricity, which he lacked, and central heat. I have a car, which seems like a necessity and might not be. I experiment with leaving it parked for days at a time. Maybe a day will come when I declare it surplus.

My regular job is half-time, so my days have space for the meditation, sauntering, and journaling that went with cabin living for Thoreau. He stood aside from the rapid social change of his day to reflect and find words to comment. May it be so for me.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A New Year's Prayer

Somebody asked me about prayer, whether Unitarian Universalists pray. The person who asked is considering joining our UU congregation, and prayer is part of her way. Prayer is a part of my way, too, though I come to it by a winding path. There was a long time when I would meditate, but not pray. Then some things happened.

This is a post about what I recommend now, rather than how I got here. See what you think. It rang true for me when Mother Theresa was quoted as saying of her prayer life, “I listen.” Whether you are sure there is a God, either out there somewhere or deep within, or suspect there might be but aren't sure, or feel confident that there is not, deep listening for the promptings of the spirit (or Spirit), is a practice worth cultivating.

Actually, I recommend four basic spiritual practices, all of which can be thought of as kinds of prayer. The first is to pay attention to what is real in this world, really pay attention as well as you can, every day. The listening – and looking, smelling, tasting and touching – would be a big part of that. The second is to accept whatever is there, whether it's bad, like the cancer that reappeared; or good, like realizing that your relationship with your difficult child is becoming more joyful. Acceptance involves compassion and forgiveness as it grows deeper. Finally, practice gratitude. Not for the cancer, surely, but for life and the kindness of those around you. Find the gifts that have arrived for you each day, notice them, accept them, and feel the gratitude.

The one other practice I truly recommend is to take time for wonder. I sometimes name it “look at the sky.” Take time to admire and be awestruck by what is around you.

If you do these things, and I try to do them, your life will be a prayer. It won't matter if there is a God or not. You will sense yourself as a part of the flow of energies in the Cosmos, and you may find yourself asking to be guided into harmony with that flow. When someone asked President Lincoln if he prayed for God to be on the side of the Union in the Civil War, he said no, but that he prayed that the Union was on God's side.

I pray this January that we may find our ways to be on God's side, to live in harmony with the great flow of energies, to help the arc of the universe bend toward justice, love, and peace.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Minister as Community Organizer

When people learn that I came to ministry with a background in community organizing, they think immediately of all the work I might be doing in the larger community, getting out there to make things better for poor people, the homeless, immigrants, others. And I do some of that. But what surprises me is that nobody tumbles to the idea -- until I suggest it to them -- that ministry is a kind of community organizing. True, it's a kind of spiritual guide gig, and a kind of religious education thing, but at heart, much about it is concerned with gathering the congregation into a functioning organization and breathing into it a sense of its own purpose.

When I read that the minister of a mid-sized church is "a kind of executive," it feels wrong. Yes, maybe a kind of executive, but really, a community organizer. Someone who can teach the skills of welcoming newcomers, getting the word out about special events, integrating those newcomers into the purpose of the organization, developing leaders, and using leaders well. I've been ministering to congregations that are smaller than mid-size, doing my work this way, and I'm pleased with the results.

It's easy for a minister to fall into picking up the pieces of a non-functioning organization when dealing with a smaller congregation. It's possible to do it, and it can be helpful if the people don't come to expect the minister to do it all. I say jokingly that the minister of a smaller congregation is a bit like the proprietor of a small business, the one who is always prepared to step in and run a machine when someone is absent or sweep the front walk or wash dishes. But not all the time. A congregation's disarray needs to be addressed by the minister-as-community-organizer. People need to be invited to step forward and take responsibility for things.

Working with disarray is something that appeals to me. It's one of the reasons I became an intentional interim minister.

Right now I am serving a congregation that is afraid of becoming "minister-centered," That is something to be afraid of, I think, and a hazard for congregations the size they are. They would benefit from more ministry, moving from a half-time to a full-time person. They would benefit from a minister who is a spiritual guide, a religious educator (there is a sense in which it's all religious education), and a community organizer. They seem to believe that more professional support would somehow diminish the leadership they are accustomed to providing, reduce them to helpers of the Big Professional.

Some congregations do get like that. They commit to more ministry than they really choose to pay for, they lose their sense of purpose, and they become a kind of perpetual fundraising organization with little further reason for being than the comfort of being together. A good community organizer can help remedy that situation or prevent it from developing.

I recommend looking to the approach, the tools, and the results of community organizing as a way to revitalize our congregations. There needs to be sense of mission, yes, but also a commitment to strengthening participation and leadership within each of our gathered communities.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Community, Houses, and Church

There are a group of people in the Belfast area who are getting together a cohousing community. This is to be an eco-village, with everything done to reduce the carbon footprint. There will be a walkway to the town center, and the project will actually preserve some farmland in a key part of town where housing development is very likely in the near future. But I feel a little grumpy about it.

On reflection, I know why I'm grumpy. I grew up in a place that had a lot in common with what is now called co-housing. It was a suburban development of small houses on large, wooded lots. There was a community association that owned and managed the water system, the extra lots, and the community house, where there was a cooperative pre-school. There were lots of potluck suppers (Dutch suppers, they called them), at the community house, where people from the community got together to socialize. One of the extra lots was developed for tennis courts. At the winter holidays, there was a tradition of strolling through the neighborhood singing carols. There were paths, so you didn't have to go everywhere on roads. It was nice. As with many suburban developments, the first residents were mostly about the same age--people with kids. And in this case, they were all concerned to build a good community in which to raise the kids.

The first families got to work with the architect to design the homes and figure out the layout of the subdivision. Individual homes, common house, eating together, shared responsibility -- So far, it sounds a lot like co-housing, only in those days they were not so specifically concerned about eco-friendly living and I don't think they insisted on consensus, which is the co-housing standard.

It was nice. But then I think what happened was that it turned out some of the people were really interested in houses. Their incomes rose, and they went off to a nearby hillside to build larger, more elegant, homes, also on lots with trees, but without quite the complete apparatus of the common house, the community suppers, the extra lots, the paths -- the ideological underlay was softened. They did have a community association, and their way of sharing was to have a community swimming pool. (Everybody was older, so the preschool was not quite the draw it had been in the old location.)

A good thing about that new neighborhood: it was there that the Unitarian (no Unitarian Universalist yet) congregation got started. The old neighborhood, where my family had stayed, stressed community-building based on where we lived. Our grownups did reach out: they provided leadership for the Girl and Boy Scouts that inclued others beyond our enclave, they also provided leadership for the League of Women Voters, the Democratic party, and the Parent Teacher Associations first of the grade school, then of the high school. I think the parents of the new neighborhood did those things too, but for me, the main thing they accomplished was starting that Unitarian congregation. Old neighborhood people participated, but it was mainly a New Neighborhood thing. I went there. It was good for me. By not focusing so much on their own housing development as a definition of community, they drew a circle that included me, a kid from a place that tended to draw a circle that left them out.

Both ways are good and important. Whether it's a congregation or a housing development, a community provides a good base for feeling safe in the world. And a person who feels safe in the world can be much more effective in reaching out to help others in the wider world. My mother didn't approve of church. She said it tended to wall people off from the rest of the world. I found that the co-housing-like community I grew up in did that, too. Church worked better for me.

So I feel grumpy about the people who are going back to the housing development as a source of community. I should be saying, "go well, best wishes!" But I suspect they will be sitting on their porches reading the New York Times on Sunday mornings, missing out on the kind of community I have found most satisfying and telling themselves it doesn't matter. The thought makes me grumpy.

I think it does matter. But my mother was right for her, so maybe they are right for them. I'll just have to be in the business of drawing larger circles.