Saturday, September 23, 2006

If the Methodists jumped of a cliff, would we?

PB asked CC, given your recent call to disband the Washington office, how do you feel about the fact that most mainstream religious groups in America have an equivalent office?

I don't believe I've ever directly called for disbanding the Washington office. I do wish we could change its focus. Longtime readers know that the UUA Washington Office has pretty much been dead to me since they sent me an email telling me I should should rally to protect the filibuster because a filibuster was crucial in "protecting the rights of the minority to speak on issues that effect all Americans"*

At the very least anything written in our names should have a disclaimer that as we are non-creedal, we don't all necessarily agree. (I realize this sounds weak to some people, but it shouldn't. The ACLU includes that disclaimer on everything, and nobody accuses them of being shrinking violets.) No, thank you, putting that disclaimer on the version of the statement that goes to the congregations, but leaving it off the version that goes to the press and to Congress isn't good enough. (If you can't tell, these minor instances of weaselhood REALLY get to me. My thoughts on the subject tend to begin with "Where the hell do they get off thinking that they can pull crap like that…" and go on from there for quite awhile.)

When I read the question about the other mainstream religious groups, the first answer to pop into my head was "Well, the Southern Baptists are the largest protestant denomination so that must be mainstream, how do you think I feel about the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention has it's own Washington Office, working hard to quite effectively push issues politically that are pretty much the opposite of what I believe and paying no taxes for doing so?"

Seeing as how other religions' leaders rarely get themselves arrested, the only other denomination's Washington office I'm particularly aware of is, of course, the Presbyterian one. The rather earnest but much beloved Chalicerelative did work for them for a period of time, but even having lived with someone who'd worked there, my impression is that the political decrees the Presbyterian church puts out are on the whole cheerfully ignored by actual Presbyterians.

At least once, my family ate dinner at Taco Bell, then asked each other if we were supposed to all be boycotting Taco Bell because the presbytery had sent out an email to that effect. The PCUSA divesting from Israel was a tremendous shock to my parents, especially when it made actual newspapers. Didn't the newspapers know that nobody pays attention to the political stuff that the PCUSA puts out, even if it's voted on at the Presbyterian General Assembly?

Basically, other churches DO have such offices. But my impression has never been that other churches have UUism's impression that passing a resolution is actually DOING something. My fellow UUs seem to honestly believe that passing a resolution about global warming equates in some way making the global warming situation better.

With all apologies to Kim, whom y'all know I love, she wrote today that making sandwiches for the homeless is "putting out fires while not trying to find the arsonist."
This is the voice of someone whom I think actually believes that all these statements and protests and petitions we put out actually do something to end poverty.

I’m afraid the only solution to poverty I know is one sandwich, one set of new clothes, one job training program at a time.


ADDED LATER: Joel does believe in disbanding the UU Washington Office and defends the idea well in the comments to this post.

*Problems with them doing that:
-To say that filibustering is exercising free speech is at best stretching the truth, as anyone who had high school civics knows. (Did they really think a bunch of people in Washington DC wouldn't know what "filibuster" means?)
-When they sponsor a rally over a procedural vote, they are straight up carrying the water of the Democratic party.
-That situation was resolved by, not a bunch of hippies holding one more candelight vigil, but moderates in both parties being able to talk to each other and work out a deal.


Jamie Goodwin said...

You know, I generally agree with you on this subject.

There are some issues though, and some ideas I think that simply FIT.

Marriage equality is a big one (although is not high up on my list), Living Wage is another. I am sure there are more.

I was thinking of two other non-creedal faiths.. Refrom Jews and Buddhism. (disclaimer, I may be wrong that Reform Jews are non-creedal, if so I apologize) and both religions have no problem supporting issues they believe FIT with their own beliefs in how they should move in the world.

The hard part for us I think is.. we do not know what we stand for, so instead it seems all that we stand for is political issues.

That is the part that is fustrating to me.

Joel Monka said...

Since I did call for the abolition of the Washington Advocacy office, I'll take a swing at PB's question. The first reason is street cred. A rap fan won't buy a tune from a white, NY Tin Pan Alley composer no matter how good a rap it is; he wants to here from people with street cred, people who've really been there. Those other denominations HAVE street cred... they run hospitals, homeless shelters, battered women shelters, parochial schools, foreign missions that feed, clothe, and teach. As a denomination we do none of these things. (Yes, few individual congregations have tried to put a program together) There are no Unitarian Mother Teresas- instead we have people who sneer at the concept of wasting their time making sandwiches for the homeless when we could be spending our time passing a resolution asking someone else to make those sandwiches instead!

The second reason is that the WA office has not changed a single vote, let alone swayed a single issue. Let's face it- a higher percentage of African Americans vote Republican than does UU's- and those few politicians who have even heard of us know that. The Republican knows that nothing he will ever do will ever get our votes- thus he might as well vote his conscience or his base anyway; there's nothing left we can do to him. The Democrat also knows this, and is thus free to do whatever he wants- as the title characted in the movie "Bullworth" told the black congregation that accussed him of lying to them,"Of course I did- what are you going to do, vote Republican?" Therefor neither side has any incentive to vote the way we ask them to.

There is no possibility of the WA office having any effect whatsoever outside of making us feel smug. On the other hand, we are doing nothing as a denomination that puts a crumb of food in an empty mouth. If we closed those offices and did something real with the money, perhaps then people would start listening to us. At least that would allow me to give my charitable giving to my own church instead of the conservative Christians who are getting it now- because they actually *DO* something with it.

PeaceBang said...

Thanks, everyone. Lots of good things to mull over. I asked the question because having a Washington faith-in-action office is a pretty standard thing for any American religious denomination, but Joel makes a good case (for me) as to how ours may be different than others'.

Steve Caldwell said...

Joel wrote:
"There are no Unitarian Mother Teresas"

And for that I'm thankful.

I'm not basing my criticism on the public image of Mother Teresa but rather the reality that she did very little for the poor in Calcutta or for the poor in general.

Documented mistreatment of the poor by allowing them to suffer is something that we should not adopt as Unitarian Universalists. Here's one Mother Teresa quote about her view of the theological benefits of suffering. At a 1981 press conference, sh was asked "Do you teach the poor to endure their lot?"

She replied: "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people."

This quote comes from Christopher Hitchens' book on Mother Teresa and can be found in the Wikipedia article on her:

More of this critical analysis of Mother Teresa's work can be found in the following article:

Saint to the rich

For those who don't want to read Hitchens' writings on Mother Teresa, there's always the Penn and Teller "Bullshit" episode "Holier Than Thou" where they examine the Mother Teresa myth and contrast it with reality.

If we're invoking a metaphor to describe a UU social justice worker, perhaps we should use someone other than Mother Teresa.

Wouldn't a "Unitarian Dorothy Day" be a better metaphor for us?

Joel Monka said...

Actually, I am well aware of the issues with Mother Teresa; I was using her as a metaphor. I know a number of religious figures working tirelessly for the poor, but their names are not household names, and so would not have been recognized.

Isn't a discussion of whether M.T. deserves her public image rather tangential to what I was saying?

Elizabeth said...

CC, when you say poverty can only be addressed one sandwich, pair of clothes, etc. at a time, are you saying that you think that there are not systemic issues that help to cause poverty that we can or should do anything about? That hopefully everyone will just help enough people so that poor people have food, clothes, etc?

Chalicechick said...

I'm saying nothing UUs have ever done has hade the slightest effect on these systemic issues.

Though if everyone was providing food, clothes, scholarships etc to people in need, that would work, too.


Anonymous said...

This is the voice of someone whom I think actually believes that all these statements and protests and petitions we put out actually do something to end poverty.

I'm sorry, I was not clear enough. I do not think that protests and petitions do anything. And I have nothing against doing good works for the poor -- we do that too. It's just that doing only sandwiches doesn't do anything for the reason they need help.
In addition, I do not agree that UUs do nothing. The Service Committee does quite a bit. Individual churches do quite a bit too. We are small -- we can only do so much. But we seem to do quite a bit -- but we don't advertise our name along with doing it, as some others do.
We shelter homeless families, work at the local food bank, work with Samaritan House, adopt families to aid, give money regularly to a battered woman's shelter, work with incarcerated youth, and lots of other things. what are you expecting?

Anonymous said...

I didn't think many churches of any denomination could formulate and run job training programs on their own -- this does seem like the kind of thing that requires input from government or large nonprofits that specialized in that.

I also am troubled by the "one sandwich at a time" philosophy because it seems to let people fall through the cracks so easily. I'm a big believer in the subway ads in NYC that caution against giving to random beggars, and instead donating that money to the large programs to help people that do exist in this city. I think government can and often does exist for the useful purpose of applying widespread effort to a cause. A program is more effective if it can tailor its job training education to what people want to learn while simultaneously addressing their other problems. (At least according to my welfare reform economics class, by about 2000 most of the people still on the welfare rolls who had not gotten a job since the 1996 law went into effect were people who needed psychotherapy for one reason or another (women with substance abuse problems, survivors of child or domestic abuse, etc.). I think I should be doing what I can as an individual to help others (which is why I tutor low income kids and work in a legal clinic), but I also lobby for more complete systems to help people. I can do my best to advise the 5th grader I tutored not to eat a ton of junk food, but that's not much replacement for good nutrition and health education in school.