Marilyn J. Sewell
The early settlers who risked life and limb to come to this land—a land
strange and unknown, but full of promise—these early settlers had a dream. That dream included freedom to worship
as they wished; it included the opportunity to prosper, if they were willing to
work hard; it included the possibility of owning their own land, plowing their
own field, not being the landless servant or serf they would have been in the
Old Country, where class systems were rigidly enforced, and your life was
absolutely locked into place by your rank and by your birth order.
Although this dream promised much to the individual, it was also a dream
grounded in holy covenant, with God and with one another. Hear the words of Governor Winthrop,
given even before his people disembarked from their ship to set foot in this
Promised Land: he said, “We are entered into Covenant with <God> for this
worke. Wee haue taken out a
commission.” And he continues a bit
later: “ . . . wee must be knit together, in this worke, as one man. Wee must entertaine each other in
brotherly affection. We must be
willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s
necessities.” And then he moves to
the responsibility of this new settlement to the larger world: “For wee must
consider that wee shall be as a city upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon
us.” A statement of manifest
destiny: we shall be a shining example to the rest of the world, a moral light
that will guide others into ways of mercy and justice. The date was 1630.
This was an amazing dream, the political piece of which was
further articulated and refined in a document which came some 140 years late, a
document which made a heretofore unimaginable claim: “All men are created equal, they are
endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” All people have precisely the same
rights? Unheard of! This was the American dream.
Granted, all people did not fall under the purview of the
dream at that time—women did not, slaves did not, men who did not own property
did not. Native Americans did not
exactly get a fair shake. But the
ideal remained, and through the centuries we have worked to enlarge the scope of
that dream. We have had some
successes, of which we are rightly proud—but the essence of that dream has been
shaken and changed. What has
happened to the sacred covenant, of ourselves with our God and ourselves with
one another? What has happened to
that noble experiment, to the country that was to be as “a city upon a hill,”
leading other nations to righteousness and to justice?
We are a nation where freedom has now been interpreted to
mean that the strong don’t have to care for the weak. We are a nation that stinks from
corruption at the top, a nation which dresses itself in God-language while
pandering unashamedly to the rich and ignoring the poor; we are a nation hated
and reviled by many other nations and grudgingly tolerated by those who would
count us as friends. We are far
from that “city upon a hill,” that moral compass for other nations—rather, we
have decided to build empire, that a few might flourish at the expense of the
Now, with our economy in shambles, with greed and corruption so apparent
to all, we have finally awakened to the hard truth that easy money helped us
avoid for so long: the economic
system that we thought was sound, that could always be fixed, turned out to be a
house of cards—a chimera based on false premises and inflated profit
sheets. The good news is that we
have come to a point of reckoning; we have had forced upon us a time of
reflection that carries with it the possibility of radical change—have we not just elected a black President, with
the middle name of Hussein? I
say “radical change” because radical means “from the root,” and no amount of
shifting or tweaking will do when there is no solid core. Our problems turn out to be rooted not
so much in economic malfeasance as in spiritual decadence.
We have come to understand that
the story we’ve been living by, the cultural narrative, is defunct. I refer to the cultural story of the
nation—ostensibly about bringing freedom and democracy to all the world; in
truth, about building empire. But I
am also referring to the cultural story for the individual, that which defines
middle-class goals and aspirations.
It’s all about competition and “getting mine.” It goes something like this: you work on
your resume, starting about age 2 or 3, get into a good elementary school, get
into a good high school, get into a good university where you will make the
right connections, graduate, get a good job, or a series of them, get married,
buy a nice house, have 2.3 children, work hard and consume a lot (i.e., buy a
lot of toys), get old, and die.
This is not a dream worthy of our
lives. This will not render a life
that will model anything worthy for our children. The emptiness of it will become
apparent, as these young people reach out for meaning in a society in which the
parents serve an economic system that no longer serves them, a system no longer
grounded in communal and spiritual values.
There is no bailing out a system that is ungrounded in relationship,
bereft of moral principle. We have to build from the bottom up, on new ground,
Economics, as I see it, is fundamentally a moral discipline. Economics defines our material
relationships with one another—that is, who gets what, of the resources of a
society; and economics defines our relationship with the natural
environment—what are we exacting or extracting, from Mother Earth, and for what
purposes? When we tell our
children, starting in their very first year, we say, “Now, Johnny, you have to
learn to share,” that’s economics.
Or we say to our two-year-old, “Let’s recycle that juice box.” That’s economics.
The problem with economics as it is treated academically and in the
business world is that ethical and moral issues are often left out of the
conversation. After all, economics
is a science, they tell us. (Was it
John Kenneth Galbraith who said that if you put all the economists in the world
end to end, that would be a good thing?)
We use formulas, we measure, we predict, and moral issues cannot easily
be figured into the equation. Maybe
not, but we should consider that the most important things in this world are the
things that do not yield easily to the scientific method.
The movement of socialist and communist systems toward free markets is
correct. They need feedback,
because complex systems cannot function well without various dependable feedback
loops. But a major error of
neoclassical economics is its over-reliance on only one form of feedback—it
looks at prices and markets and little else. Social and environmental costs are
excluded. But unemployment and
underemployment are feedback.
Global warming is feedback.
An economy seized-up by fear—that’s feedback, too.
Economists have taught us to reify “the economy”—or make it seem like a
system of rules and regulations that are real and tangible, a system delivered
from on high, a system that just is,
like air or water, and is not amenable to change. But the system has been imagined by
human beings, on assumptions made by human beings, and it can be changed by
So let’s take a look at the values that run the country’s economy—and our
lives—at the moment. I think we’d
have to use words like profit, production, efficiency, consumption, creation of capital. Now let me make myself clear: there is
nothing wrong with these words.
It’s just that they are not ends in themselves. They should exist to serve values larger
than themselves—human values. They
should exist to serve the common good, to serve human health and well-being, to
ensure the care and sustainability of our earth.
There are important questions we need to ask: does our economic system
exist to serve families—or does our family structure exist to serve the economic
structure? Why should both parents
have to work out of the home? Why
do we have so little interaction with family members, not even eating together
in many cases? Are social
structures arranged to bring generations together, or to pull them apart? Do work structures exist to support
parenting, the building of community, the work of citizen-activists—or for the
efficiency of the economic machine?
This economic melt-down will help
us begin to ask the right questions.
And so will the peaking of fossil fuel, which is upon us. When oil is no longer cheap—and that
time will come again, and soon—our economic life will shift dramatically. We will be more and more focused
locally. We will eat more local
food, trade with small businesses close at hand, find ways to work that are more
amenable to family life instead of commuting miles each day. We will walk and bike and use transit
instead of drive. We will not fly
thousands of miles away from home to meetings or to vacation three and four
times a year. We will live closer
together, and we will share more of ourselves, more of the time. We will mend instead of buying new. Some of us urban dwellers will weave and
knit and plant and grow. Change is
already happening, and more will come.
This is one of those rare openings
in which the scales have fallen from the national eyes, and it is clear to
almost everyone that the emperor has no clothes. The good news is that we will now have
the opportunity to re-imagine the kind of economy we want, the kind of life we
want to live. We need to take
advantage of the moment, to re-imagine, to re-form the American Dream.
It’s not that people don’t understand that we have a problem—it’s that
people have had their imaginations drained out of them by the constant barrage
of messages they receive about consuming, and they have had their energies
drained by jobs that have longer and longer hours and less and less
meaning. But the people need
Which brings me to say a word
about our hero, Barack Obama. I am
amazed, astounded, and ecstatic that Obama has been elected President of these
But let it be said that no leader, no matter how visionary, can bring the
change this nation needs. Obama’s
only authority against the powers that be—and they are formidable—his sole authority is the people. That would be you and me and others like
us. Learn from history: change
always, always, always comes from the bottom up.
You know, I think of that old
Chinese blessing: “May you live in interesting times.” Our generation has a mission, a clear
and evident one. We have a
compelling moral purpose which can direct our lives and our energies—literally,
we are about saving the world.
So what is our part? The
place to begin is at home—that is, with ourselves. Notice what is life-denying and resist
it—just say “no” for your sake and your children’s sake. Live with the moral
authority that comes from compassion and non-violence. Form communities of people who will
sustain you in living as you wish to live, whether they are study groups or
alternative living arrangements or socially responsible, sustainable
businesses. Our churches should be
central gathering places for such community. Now we structure our lives to serve the
economy—what would an economy look like that was structured to serve the
people? How would you like to
live? Make it happen.
You and I belong to a group of people that Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson
refer to as the “cultural creatives,” a growing segment of the U.S.
population—already over 25%—who embrace a new culture that values diversity,
stewardship of the environment, economic justice, and civil rights for all.
They say that roughly half this
number combine these beliefs with some form of spiritual practice. They call these people the “Core
Cultural Creatives.” It is from
these folks—folks like you and me, folks that populate Unitarian Universalist
churches—that the new story, the new cultural narrative, will emerge. I’m not sure of the exact words you will
choose or how you will put them together for your story, but some of those words
might be love, service, kindness, joy, presence, peace, integrity, stewardship, covenant. These are religious concepts, and this
is the Beloved Community that we are building.
I was intrigued by these words of an East German dissident, Rudolf Behro:
he said, “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created
by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.” I started thinking about us as Unitarian
Universalists: this is who we are—we are not afraid to be insecure. We are not afraid to search, to go
deeper, to find the truth, even when the truth is unpalatable. We are seekers who want to live out of
that truth, not some kind of made-up world that might be more momentarily
comfortable to live in.
Unitarian Universalists, though small in number, can be the yeast in the
loaf. Let us, however, be wary of
the usual distractions and follies of our movement. It’s grown-up time now. We no longer have time for petty
quarrels about how “religious” our language should be, no time for conflict
between the humanists and the more spiritually inclined, no more time for
squabbles about who is in charge here.
The mission of the church is not
about meeting our needs; the mission of the church is about healing our
world. It is about giving
ourselves to something larger than ourselves. Ironically, when we give ourselves in
this way, we find that our deepest needs will, in fact, be met.
The idealism that caused John Winthrop to say that we have a special
destiny, and that destiny is to be as “the city upon the hill,” is not dead in
this country. I see it in certain
young people, who are quietly living in a way respectful of our earth; I see it
in many creative people who have a vision way beyond the popular mind. I know that wherever the human spirit is
willing to join with that larger Spirit that new dreams can be dreamed and whole
nations can be moved. Whoever
thought the Berlin Wall would come crashing down? But when the time was right, it came
down. Whoever thought that Nelson
Mandela would get out of prison after 28 years, and lead his nation, but in time
it happened. I grew up in
North Louisana in the 1950’s in a small,
totally segregated town. I
literally never saw a black man in a dress shirt. Who would have guessed that I would see
an African American President in my lifetime? An African American President, with a
cabinet replete with women and people of color. The time is ripe for a great
turning once again.
I am convinced that what is life-denying, what is repressive and false,
will be known as such and people, who are basically good, will follow a new
way. Let us be some of those who
step out and lead, who dare to once again be the Light that blesses the
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Last updated on Monday, March 18, 2013.
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