Monday, February 11, 2013

Preach-In on Global Warming

Preach-In on Global Warming
Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church
February 10 2013

Are you ready to tell your children they were born a generation too late? That there is nothing you can do to fight the destruction of the earth’s climate?

This is the way Javier Sierra begins his article “Were Your Children Born a Generation Too Late?”…and I must admit, it is a startling thought. Only…it is something that has crossed my mind before, and I have even said aloud to my oldest granddaughter, “When you get older, maybe you and your sisters and your cousin should consider not having any children.” She was shocked and asked me why I would say such a thing. And I replied, “because the world is going to be in such bad shape, it would be unfair to subject your children to that.”
And I do believe that, and how can I keep quiet when my grandchildren - as parents - would be subjecting their children to living in a world where global warming has destroyed much of the ecosystem that we happily enjoy now?

Yet, how can I not be aware that I am asking them to forego reproducing, to make that kind of sacrifice? Having children is one of the most beautiful, fulfilling things we as humans can do. It is something I struggle with as I assess the century to come.
To recognize that children born ten or twenty years from now will as adults have a much harder life – and maybe a very much poorer quality of life – may lead some people to make exactly that choice.
And we do – in the West – have that choice, but many people in poorer countries, whose high child mortality rates and whose need for enough willing workers to contribute to a family’s basic living, may not be so lucky.

Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers (New York: Grove Press, 2005), says
“we are the generation fated to live in the most interesting of times, for we are now the weather makers, and the future of biodiversity and civilization hangs on our actions.” (P306)

What a heavy responsibility weighing on our shoulders! It may well be that we humans only have a few years left in which to turn things around, so that our planet will remain habitable for our grandchildren’s children.

Climate change is a pressing matter that is also an ethical, moral, and spiritual issue for each of us to consider today. Because today across this country, ministers are holding a Preach-in for Global Warming, sponsored by Interfaith Power and Light, an organization that provides environmental justice resources to congregations in 40 states. I first became acquainted with this group’s Georgia chapter when Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” was released in 2007, and Interfaith Power and Light sponsored congregational film screenings and discussions. You may recall that Al Gore won a Nobel Peace prize for his work, although his book and subsequent film were criticized by the right-wing, and his statistics and claims of a global warming crisis were condemned.

Diverting the urgent need to act by attacking the messenger – the logical fallacy called ad hominem – has no doubt had an effect on America’s failure to create a coherent and effective environmental policy. And religious leaders – even Richard Cizik, of the National Association of Evangelicals – have been urging the government to act. This morning, I want to ask you to remain hopeful, even in the face of denial and inaction by those who have the power to turn around the crisis that awaits should we do nothing.

I. global warming facts

So, let me give you four basic facts as offered by the Environmental Defense Fund’s website:
1.   There is scientific consensus on the basic facts of global warming. The most respected scientific bodies have stated unequivocally that global warming is occurring, and that people are causing it.
2.   Scientists are certain that the Earth is warming, and has been for 100 years.
3.   Human activity is causing the Earth to get warmer. Only CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions from human activities can explain the observed warming now taking place on Earth.
4.   The effects of warming can be seen today, through disappearing habitat, shrinking arctic sea ice, and extreme weather.

II. Storm Nemo

It’s ironic that many ministers in the northeast US who were planning a Preach-In like this one have had to cancel their services because of Storm Nemo this weekend! On Friday night a message went out from Interfaith Power and Light, that their prayers go out to all of those along the path of the storm, many of whom are still recovering from the effects of Superstorm Sandy; this morning we join our prayers to theirs. But it also pointed out that this is a teaching moment for us all:
“Nemo was a massive, possibly historic storm, or to use the Weather Channel’s language ‘epic.’ It dumped more three feet of snow in New England, underscoring the amplification effect of climate change. Forecasts warn of significant, widespread damage throughout the region, parts of which are still coping with the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.”  (

The email mentioned the “somewhat counter-intuitive nature of the public’s understanding of the relationship between extreme winter weather and global warming”, and asked that we be prepared to explain the links between this storm and global climate change.

So here goes:
“The past few years have been marked by unusually severe extreme weather characteristic of climate change. Global warming puts more energy into storms. Storm surge now rides on sea levels that have risen over the last century due to global warming. This amplifies flooding losses if and when a surge strikes. Storm surge now rides on sea levels that have risen over the last century due to global warming.
Nemo is part of the larger trend. In the last century, we have witnessed a 20 percent increase in the amount of precipitation falling in the heaviest rain and snow events, directly tied to climate disruption. The Northeast has been particularly vulnerable, experiencing a dramatic increase in one-day precipitation extremes during the October to March cold season.

Coastal flooding has also become more common as climate change drives sea levels higher. Off-shore water temperatures are higher than normal right now, adding to the potential for heavy precipitation by feeding Nemo with additional moisture.” (IPL email 2/8/2013)

And that ends the weather segment of the sermon!


A statement from a meeting in Doha of the World Council of Churches ( two months ago starts with this exclamation: “The world cannot wait – climate change is happening!”

It’s worth reading a segment of this statement to get a sense of the urgency felt by this worldwide fellowship of churches, because it brings up another potentially life-threatening effect of climate change:

“As people of faith concerned for our sisters and brothers, we come to Doha extremely worried about food security as the severe shortages in crops face us with the prospect of horrific humanitarian crises that should be avoided. The present situation at world food markets, exemplified by sharp increases in wheat, soybean and corn prices compels leaders to act urgently to be sure that these outstanding high prices do not drive into an appalling scenario, harming tens of millions.”

The statement goes on to acknowledge that there is only a handful of nations who are large producers of staple food commodities – and this past year’s severe drought in two of them, the US and Russia, sent grain prices skyrocketing.

“Time has arrived,” the WCC says, “to promote more sustainable and climate resilient food production to urgently make more food available to sustain the human family especially in the most vulnerable societies, ill prepared to deal with food scarcity. Moreover, diversion of food stock for non-food purposes and financial speculation are unethical and immoral.”

We’ve seen how oil prices and the housing market have been manipulated for financial gain in the recent past – none of us would be surprised to see market speculation and other immoral tactics if food becomes another commodity of great value.

The WCC calls attention in this document to the ‘Principle of Intergenerational Equity’ that declares "the Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind."
Back to the idea that we hold the future for our children and their children, and “that our generation is probably the very last generation having it in our hands to still limit global warming to less than 2ÂșC while future generations won’t have this freedom of choice but will have to adapt to climate patterns we have left to them.”
“The World Council of Churches believes that the whole Earth community deserves to benefit from the bounties of creation. Faith communities are addressing climate change because it is a spiritual and ethical issue of justice, equity, solidarity, sufficiency and sustainability.”

V. Rebecca Parker – loving our neighbor

And not only that…it’s an issue of love. In this month associated with love, and a month when we in the Aiken UU church stand on the side of love, we emphasize the love we have for our congregation and our wider community through our acts of justice and equality – Grace Kitchen, the Black History Parade, the Welcoming Congregation service.

Rebecca Parker, in her book Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Skinner House, 2006), says that what we are doing here in this church is what the world needs to do – have a ”spiritual and practical revolution that embodies love for neighbor and the world through sustaining structures of care and responsibility” (145).

How can we afford to wait until we face an emergency in dealing with climate change, instead of beginning now to prevent the worst of it? As ‘weather makers,’ to use the words of Tim Flannery, we can turn to each other for the solution. 

The Rev. Roger Bertschausen urges us to consider a ‘spiritual approach to global warming’ and says that maybe “part of the answer to the profound challenge of global warming is community. Maybe we need to figure out how in this world crowded with six billion people we can truly connect with other people. Maybe we need to turn to the people around us and get to know them. Maybe we need to realize we’re in this together.

And not just the people right around us we’ve turned to, but even the people way on the other side of the world. Experiencing connectedness with those around us is only significant if we also understand that the connectedness goes far beyond our small circle. Maybe with a deeper sense of community we’ll realize that we have enough.

Rebecca Parker reminds us that reverence is a form of love, and describes it as “a response to life that falls on its knees before the rising sun and bows down before the mountains” (146).

We can start to be reverent by living our first and seventh principles, to affirm and promote the worth and dignity of each person, and the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. We see those principles written around us in this sanctuary, in our hymnals… and it is too easy to say ‘of course we believe those things’. Living them is a much harder thing to do!

We can begin by lessening our carbon footprints in the ways our children were looking at doing in the Time for All Ages. We can begin by telling the leaders of this city, this state, this country, that we want more, faster action to save our planet.

VI. Spiritual approach to GW

A spiritual approach to global warming, then, takes on urgency, but also meaning, as an act of reverence. This sanctuary for us is one place where we contemplate the reverence that we pay to those things, beliefs, and values we hold dear. But it’s out there where we – with our children and grandchildren - need to make a difference, because, as Mark Belletini’s “Communion Circle” meditation reading makes clear, “everything, for good or ill, is part of the shared whole.”
May we be the ones who make it so, Blessed Be, Amen.

Gaye Ortiz

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Common Elements of Oppression

The Common Elements of Oppression
Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church
January 27 2013
Groucho Marx once said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

Two years ago, in 2011, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations Commission on Appraisal published a report called Belonging: The Meaning of Membership. In it, the authors addressed a real disparity between the ideal of pluralism vs. the reality of UU congregations.
Mark Harris, in his book A Faith for a Few, described the problem: “While our principles affirm that we would welcome someone who is very different from us, many members feel we should recruit among those who match the demographic characteristics of our current membership. New members should fit in or be like us in order for us to grow, and therefore there is little challenge to confront change”(Mark Harris, ). So obviously Groucho never met a UU congregation!

Unitarians of the 1950s and 60s saw the need for diversity, and in theory their faith was open to all, a religion for one world, to quote Kenneth Patton. But Harris observes that “the one world they promoted looked very much like a replication of themselves, and what is most striking in our desire to be diverse today is that our multiracial and multicultural populations are usually the adopted children in our church schools, or the few adults among us who have the same education, income and values that everyone else does. Our yearning for diversity does not touch differences of class.”

Many of us UUs are familiar with the slightly paternalistic assumption that people of different classes, cultural groups and ethnic backgrounds would not be attracted by our rational, liberal faith. The consequence, Harris says, is that “our public expression of a democratic faith open to all, does not find practical application among us, and therefore ‘does not always match the Principles we espouse’.” ( )

Are we UUs deceiving ourselves when we say we want to appeal to a variety of people, not just the white professional demographic? More seriously, are we UUs responsible in part for the oppression of any number of marginal peoples in our world today, even as we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each person?

Are we accountable to them because of our failings as people of faith? UU minister Wayne Arnason once addressed the UUA board on the issue of accountability, calling it a big theological issue. He spoke about a number of world faiths, including Christianity, that reject the idea of being accountable to anyone or anything but God – not secular authorities, only an authority which transcends this world.

He pointed out that Unitarian Universalism “does not require or covenant around a transcendent source of authority’…but “instead, as a covenantal religious community, we locate our accountability in this world, in our community of congregations, and in the values, principles, and traditions they represent.” (James Cone, “Theology’s Great Sin,” in Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley, Nancy Palmer Jones, SoulWork, 16) And so when we acknowledge our failings, we do so by being accountable to each other.

Thus, Arnason recalls, “over and over throughout our history we have seen the struggles that have ensued when we called ourselves to account based on values we said that we held but denied in practice” (16). He is recalling our UU heritage of working for social justice in areas like emancipation and suffrage, while finding that our own faith movement was complicit in those forms of oppression.

Wayne Arnason took part in a landmark UU debate on racism, which was initiated by a 3-day conference in 2001 attended by scholars, educators, ministers, theologians, and activists. The book Soul Work came out of that conference, and its authors tried to explore why there had been such resistance to seeing racism as a profound problem for religion.

Now you may be ready to say, Hold on, I have not been complicit in oppressing people of a different class or ethnicity or gender or sexuality. I don’t need to be involved in this Welcoming Congregation program, because I have no issue with LGBT people coming to our church, or becoming members.

The continuum from hatred to hostility to tolerance to acceptance to love is a broad one, and the point of the Welcoming Congregation program, like the point of that anti-racism conference 11 years ago, is to say, tolerance is not enough; even acceptance is not enough. If we as Unitarian Universalists say that love is the doctrine of this church, then we have to continue to work until that is the reality.

Oppression in the United States is alive and well, and the author Suzanne Pharr has given us a picture of how oppression is systematic and organized so as to keep power in the hands of a dominant few (from Homophobia: a Weapon of Sexism, 1988). The ‘isms’ of oppression that she identifies – sexism, racism, classism, ageism, to name a few – originate in the ‘defined norm’ of our American society.

What is the image of the defined norm? Basically, male, Caucasian, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied, youthful, wealthy and well-resourced. Pharr is not saying that this is a majority of Americans, only that this is the type of person in our society who has the ability to assert control over others.

Pharr says that the way the defined norms are kept in place is through: the power of institutions, economic power, and the threat of violence from either individuals or institutions.

Just two examples of institutional status quo are the government – the lack of representation from minorities such as women – and the penal system – the excess of representation of minorities in the prison population.

As far as economic power goes, Pharr refers us to the ‘myth of scarcity,’ which pits us against each other because we are scared of losing the few resources we have or have control over – for instance, the poor use too much of our already limited resources. Just think about the myth of scarcity as it operates in the immigration issue: immigrants take our jobs, lower the standards of our schools, destroy our neighborhoods and lower our property value.

And then think about how economic oppression keeps most of us from becoming involved in the democratic process – should we wish to run for office, the cost is prohibitive, except for wealthy citizens.

Pharr claims that, in order to maintain the status quo, the tools of oppression wielded by those in power include the following three tactics:

First, the threat of violence – historically a very effective tool! Remember the decimation of Native Americans in the westward expansion of this country?
Closer to our own contemporary experience of patriarchy and heterosexual dominance, two examples are domestic violence, which statistics show continues to occur to unacceptable levels; and the terrible epidemic of sexual assaults on female members of the US military. And the gay population has had its share of martyrs, from Harvey Milk to Matthew Shepard, whose threat to the dominant norms of sexuality was dealt with through tragic acts of murder.

The second tool of oppression is the use of labels of exclusion, like ‘the Other’ – those who in someway are lacking in comparison to the norm; those who are seen as abnormal, deviant, inferior, and those who are not seen or invisible. ‘A Day without a Mexican’ is a film I show to my class in Intercultural Communication – it was made in 2004 as a satire. What would happen to California if all the Mexicans – who do all the invisible work of building houses, picking crops, caring for children – were to vanish suddenly? The film ends with the collective confession by the Anglo population that they had indeed treated Mexicans as invisible.

And a third tool of oppression is tokenism…those minority members who are ‘on show’ as a refutation of discrimination, and who find themselves in a double bind, as in the 1950s, when blacks in authority positions in government and law enforcement had to face hostility and isolation from both their cultural community and the Caucasian majority in which they worked.

These and other tactics of oppression divide and conquer – they focus on individual achievement, and thus keep groups from effectively organizing.
And so, because we have joined together and exist as an organization within a structural status quo, we cannot help but be affected by our perceptions, assumptions, and expectations of the defined norm - remember that Mark Harris described our desire to be diverse, sitting awkwardly alongside our preference for people who will ‘fit in’ with our membership demographics.

How will we revitalize our commitment to diversity? We need to stop cooperating with the perpetuation of oppression and instead witness to a larger good. We are called by our covenant with each other to live up to the seven principles that we affirm and promote so as to make this a better and more just world. We are challenged to stand on the side of love.

We here at AUUC are on the journey to becoming a Welcoming Congregation. Just being aware of the pervasive nature of structural oppression is another step we can take on that journey. But once we are aware, what do we do? Theologian Rebecca Parker also took part in the anti-racism discussion described in the book SoulWork. She suggests that we express our feelings. Yes, that suggestion may send chills down the intellectualized UU – and we are legion!

But Parker points out that we may become anesthetized and numbed to our feelings about the various oppressions that we are immersed in. The status quo, the social structures in which we live, may cause us to suppress our feelings without really knowing it; Parker calls this the “social construction of heartlessness”. Feelings, Parker says, are as important as thinking about racism and its consequences, sexism and its consequences, classism, ageism and all the other isms.

That is why I close today by asking you to reflect on the two short quotations I’ve used in this service: the first, from the Letter of Paul to the Romans, is written at the top of the Order of Service. It echoes Rebecca Parker’s desire for us to feel: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”

The second, the meditation from Rumi’s poem “Say Yes Quickly,” recalls the responsibility each of us has, through our bond of covenant, to be faithful to each other:
“If you are here unfaithfully with us,

you’re causing terrible damage.

If you’ve opened your loving to God’s love,

you’re helping people you don’t know

and have never seen.”
May we be the ones who make it so, Blessed be, Amen.

Gaye W. Ortiz
January 2013