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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Who's Got Shoes ? The Morality Of Income Disparity

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert, Director of Religious Exploration Dayna Edwards Bettie Young, Worship Associate, with the Choir and Chalice Dancers

Who’s Got Shoes? The Morality of Income Disparity

A sermon by the Reverend Diane Teichert

January 19, 2014 – Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

“I got shoes, you got shoes, all God’s children got shoes. When I get to heaven, I’m gonna put on my shoes and I’m gonna walk all over God’s heaven. Everybody talking about heaven ain’t going there. Heaven, heaven. I’m gonna walk all over that heaven.”

This song (just sung by the choir, to which the Chalice Dancers danced) originated in the time of slavery and the people who sang it likely didn’t have shoes. Life was extremely hard and we can imagine that they looked forward to going to heaven where they would have basics like shoes and luxuries like harps, and be like the angels in robes and wings.  They’d be free to walk anywhere they wanted to walk in God’s heaven.  No more slavery. They knew of that Biblical imagery because they’d heard it in worship, and a few had read it themselves.

But, what does this line mean:  “everybody talking about heaven ain’t going there.”?

Who, in slave times, would be talking about heaven in church, but not be deserving of going there?

Uh, uh. The slave masters. They went to church on Sunday, but came home to plantation life, where they perpetrated physical, emotional and sexual abuse to keep their way of life going and the system of slavery in place. This song is about hypocrisy, as well as hope.

And, maybe, “heaven” in this song is an allusion not to the after-life, but to the North, to Canada, to freedom in this life.  The songs of the enslaved people were risky songs to sing, so the imagery had to be subtle. It was especially effective when derived from the Bible, which the slave owners presumed taught subservience and elevated suffering as redemptive.

Who’s got shoes, in our world today? Who doesn’t? Is it okay that some have none?                               That some have so many they have to give nearly-perfectly good ones away to make room for the new ones they just bought? That others have so much storage space, they just keep buying more and more shoes?

Is wealth and income disparity okay? How wide does the gap between the poorest and the wealthiest have to be before we understand it to be immoral? Evil? A sign of greed, one of the seven deadly sins?

This question is one of the reasons I felt drawn, or called, to be a Unitarian Universalist minister.

Between graduation from college and entering seminary to prepare for ministry, I worked as a labor and community organizer. Over those seventeen years, I worked on a wide range of issues. Whether it was lack of medical care for a white working class and poor neighborhood; fear of crime among low to moderate income senior citizens in a racially-mixed community; raises, roses, rights, and respect for black and white female clerical workers many of whom were the sole support of their households; racial tensions in my town’s high school acerbated by racist institutional practices of the school system; or teen age pregnancy prevention in a multi-ethnic immigrant city… underlying all of these issues was the question of distribution of wealth and resources in the United States, for that matter the world.

But when you are organizing, you pick an issue you feel you can win, because people need to experience success. You don’t talk about distributive justice or economic democracy. You certainly don’t use words like greed.

So, I decided that the inequitable distribution of resources to be a spiritual question, one that religious communities could address. I wanted to put my energies there.

(As an aside, the other question that drew me to ministry was one about the lack of community in so many people’s lives. They would join community and labor organizations looking for a sense of community, but such organizations are not really designed to create it. But it is one of the goals of religious communities, so I wanted to put my energies there).

Underneath each one of the issues I’d organized around was an ethical question to address to religious communities:  Is it right that some have way too much while others have way too little? And furthermore, is it right that in this country (and most countries) the ones who have the most wealth wield the most power in the systems and institutions that organize our individual lives?

Fast forward to today, is it right that this is true more so now, than ever before, because of the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in the Citizens United case, which gave the rights of persons to corporations? (If you think “no,” there’s a rally this Tuesday in Annapolis on this advocating that Maryland be one of the states to call for a constitutional convention on this issue).

Back at the end of my organizing career, I was sure that such income and power imbalances were wrong, but I wasn’t sure why. Why was I so sure – in my bones – that inequitable distribution of resources is ethically, morally, and spiritually wrong?

The simplest answer is that I learned it as a child at my Protestant church. I learned that God didn’t want people to be poor or hungry, without food or clothes.

I learned the words of the Hebrew prophet, Micah, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).  Was it just or kind that some lived grandly while others were impoverished?

I learned that both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures make it clear that the faithful are called to provide for those less fortunate than themselves.

For example, the legal codes binding upon the Israelites provided many protections for slaves, migrant workers, widows, and orphans… suggesting that those with greater means and power in that culture needed to be reminded of their obligations, or regulated, just as those in comparable positions in society do today.  (See Lev. 19:9-10, Deut.24:14-15).

And, the Great Judgment issued by Jesus was not that the nations will be divided according to who professed the right faith or the most faith, but that they will be divided according to which provided for the “least of those” among them and which did not. And, he said, the latter will be banished into “eternal punishment.” (see Mt.25:37-40)

Do you think basing one’s ethical code on ancient scripture is just childish naïveté?

In case it is, I’ve looked for a theological basis more contemporary than the threat of eternal punishment (though climate change seems to be bringing that very thing upon us!)

As religious liberals, we can look to the early religious humanist John Dewey for some direction here. An American, he lived from 1859-1952 and was a professor of philosophy at major universities and he was one of the first signers of the Humanist Manifesto.  (see John Dewey’s A Common Faith).

He taught that there are ideals – things like endeavoring for a better world, like justice, kindliness, order, art in all its forms, effort, and rest after striving – that humans get to taste, to experience. The intimations, or tastes, we get of such ideals cause us to desire more of them. The spiritual renewal that comes with these intimations gives us the energy to create the circumstances under which we, and others, can experience more of these ideals. They are ideals, so they are never fully realized – and as possibilities, conceiving of them requires imagination. But, for those who have had tastes of them, they are not imaginary. They are real.

So, there is what I would call spiritual energy, between the actual and the ideal – he calls it an “active relation.” Interestingly, for someone who identified as a humanist, sometimes an atheist, Dewey says that he would give that active relation between the actual and the ideal the name “God,” but is quick to add he would not insist that the name must be given.

Whatever the name or lack thereof, it seems to me that the incomplete experience of an ideal is motivating. Maybe you’ve known it in your personal life. You get a moment of really great singing in the choir, a moment of glee in landing a job after not having one, a moment of transcendence in meditation, of joy in collaborating with a group of self-directing people, of rapture gazing at your own finally peacefully sleeping child, of adrenalin while running, or of liberation as you take a step toward freedom – and you want, and have the energy to help create, more.

Don’t you think that public ideals like justice, compassion, and equity in human relations work the same way? In other words, victories toward them give us energy to endeavor for more? And, our anger arises when injustices and inequities persist and work against these ideals that are so life-giving that we want them for everyone?

So… to the extent that the wealthy hoard resources that could be distributed to develop public works that increase job openings, to improve schools, provide universal health care, and support livable wages, the opportunities for more people to get intimations of these ideals are diminished. That’s wrong. That’s one way to understand why greed is a sin and so destructive of civilization.

This points to how interconnected we all are, echoed in the seventh of our Unitarian Universalist principles (printed on the cover of your Bulletin) and it’s one of the most salient teachings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life we honor and death we mourn this weekend.

He says it so well in the oft-quoted statement, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (see “The American Dream,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr, edited by James M. Washington, pages 208-216).

He made this statement on June 6, 1961 in his commencement address at Lincoln University, founded in 1854 as the first institution anywhere in the world to provide a higher education in the arts and sciences for male youth of African descent.  Located on Route 1 about halfway between Baltimore and Philadelphia, it admitted women in 1952 and affiliated with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s university system as a co-ed institution in 1972.  Among its well-known graduates are Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall, classes of 1929 and 1930, respectively.

In that speech, the very next sentence (conveniently omitted from the lists of famous quotes by Dr. King) has to do with who has shoes and who doesn’t: “As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars.”

The speech was called “The American Dream.” After a stirring beginning describing that dream, Dr. King said, “Now may I suggest some of the things we must do if we are to make the American dream a reality. First I think all of us must develop a world perspective if we are to survive. “

Note, he said it is for our very survival that a world perspective is necessary. Not just the achievement of the American Dream, but for our survival!

He went on, “The American dream will not become a reality devoid of the larger dream of world of brotherhood and peace and good will. The world in which we live is a world of geographical oneness and we are challenged now to make it spiritually one.”  

Then he described the journey to “that great country in the Far East known as India” he and Mrs. King had recently taken.  He noted their memorable meetings with great leaders like Gandhi and their many conversations with people in cities and villages through out India. But, then he described the depressing moments, witnessing extreme poverty,  seeing in Calcutta and Bombay all the people – a million and six hundred thousand, respectively – “sleeping on the sidewalks every night.”

He felt Americans should not stand idly by and not be concerned.

He said, “… We spend more than a million dollars a day to store surplus food in this county… I know where we can store that food free of charge – in the wrinkled stomachs of millions of people who go to bed hungry at night. Maybe we spend too much of our national budget building military bases around the world, rather than [building] bases of genuine concern and understanding [around the world].” 

He was a genius at making connections.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people cannot expect to live more than twenty or thirty years, no man can be totally healthy, even if he just got a clean bill of health from the finest clinic in America. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way the world is made. I didn’t make it that way, but this is the interrelated structure of reality.”

We are all interconnected, true, and certain connections among us are even weaker than they were in the time of Dr. King. The wealth gap in the US, and in the world, between the richest and the poorest, between those with plenty of storage for all the shoes they could possibly buy and those with no shoes at all, is wider than when Dr. King was alive. They say it expanded further due to the recent Great Recession from which the financial elite have more than recovered - they’ve benefitted. That’s greed.

Who’s got shoes here? I don’t see any bare feet….

The Occupy Wall Street movement made a public issue of wealth disparity with their great slogan “We are the 99%.” Since Occupy, a movement has begun:  organizations are coalescing, campaigns forming, and demands are being made. The demand for a livable minimum wage is the specific rallying cry that our congregation and its Social Action Committee, the UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland, and our national Unitarian Universalist Association have joined in on. There’s work to be done!

So, who’s got shoes? We’ve got shoes!

So, we are called to pay attention to income disparity. No need for us to be subtle.

Let’s name greed and hypocrisy when we see it.

Because we are all connected in a network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.

Those who have shoes and those who don’t, let us walk in them together to make heaven on earth! Amen. May it be so.

POST NOTE added January 20, 2014:

This would have been an excellent reading to go with this sermon. It’s from “Where Do We Go from Here?” delivered in 1967 and was (according to the editor of Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., where you can read the entire speech, pages 245-252) Dr. King’s “last, and most radical, address” to SCLC – the Southern Christian Leadership Conference - of which he was president. 

 “I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here,” that we honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve go to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?” These are questions that must be asked.

Now, don’t think that you have me in a “bind” to day. I’m not talking about communism.

What I’m saying to you this morning is that communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”

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