This essay was read from the pulpit of the First
Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco during the June 10, 2001 worship
If we asked a room of 250 San Francisco Unitarian Universalists on a Sunday
morning what they thought about the high energy prices and the sudden inability
of the utilities and gasoline suppliers to deliver enough of their product to go
around, we would hear a chorus of indignation over corporate greed, political
inaction, and The System. We would quickly devolve into familiar grumblings,
pairing the cost of BTUs and the WTO, gas prices and Florida ballots, and
Standard Oil and the Supreme Court. Passive resignation over the inability of us
lowly mortals to affect high-stakes economics would comfortably ooze around the
However, this spring's California power manipulation, a contemptible
conniving that shifts huge amounts of wealth from the poorer to the richest and
simultaneously attempts to provoke abandonment of concern over nuclear waste and
other environmental damage, is drawing little religious outrage. For the most
part, the rapacious energy price increases have drawn only statements of anguish
over our personal energy bills and a reiteration of long and dearly held views
on the nature of social power.
But, look at the damage! The First Unitarian Universalist Society of San
Francisco has had to lay off staff and abandon thoughts of funding new programs
in order to pay PG&E (or Enron or Halliburton or whomever will admit to
making a profit). Worse than our parochial predicament, schools cannot pay
teachers or buy supplies because of the power bills. A ninety-three -year-old
friend of mine was presented with an $800 monthly heat bill for her modest
Eureka home. Families who cannot pay the ransom are faced with utility cutoffs,
and our economic fabric is being torn as small businesses deal with huge cost
increases and unreliable power.
Simultaneously the energy monopolists are charging unconscionably more for
gasoline. Again, its our poorer folks who cannot afford to live near their jobs
who suffer most. Again, the greedy blame the weather, environmental regulations,
or passing neutrinos to obscure the fundamental reason for their increases which
is that they have market control and can get away with it.
Meanwhile, our politicians, including specifically those who represent San
Francisco in the legislature and our governor who received a large majority from
San Francisco voters, don't get it. They have passed nothing except blame and
rate hikes and then more blame.
Our long-term legislators in the Assembly and State
Senate, people in leadership of the party in power, are failing us.
Their newsletters to constituents howl in passionate protest at the
situation. However, the howls are appropriate only from the hungry on
the outside and are unseemly coming from those sated from eating at
lobbyist banquets and who are now paralyzed to act for the public good.
The legal and political institutions are mishandling the explosive,
bread-and-butter, protect-my-family imperative of our time. The inability to
earn a living and frustration at not being heard are conditions that
historically breed civil discontent, yet none of society's organizations are
responding to this Maslow powder keg.
The monopolists want to dispassionately discuss rates, allocations of
preordained price increases, and even the appropriate procedures to unwind
calculated bankruptcy. They say, "Calm down." "Don't be so
emotional." "Let's use logic."
All those intellectual tools are needed. But, this is not a civil negotiation
of a contract between willing and equal participants. We, especially the least
wealthy of us, have been attacked in a sneaky, and terribly effective, way. We
cannot now accept that a position half way between rape and justice is the
middle ground where we will wind up. Our public guardians have been corrupted
and co-opted. The current battle is visceral and moral, and cannot be sanitized
into a bloodless proposition.
The First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco has not stepped up
to its calling, either. We have been silent, save for safe coffee-hour
complaining. Silent in the midst of a huge public morality play which itself is
tragically flawed because no character on the stage is bothering to seek their
own soul's salvation.
Should we excite ourselves into political action, urge the justly deserved
recall of the hand-wringing, campaign-contribution-receiving, inept office
holders? Should we shout for criminal prosecution of white-collar thievery?
Should we comb our endowment and demand divestment of the stocks of price
We must first respond in the domains that are our responsibility: the moral
and spiritual. We have the charge to frame the issues according to Unitarian
Universalist values and to bring that framework into the public arena. We cannot
allow "supply and demand" or "survival of the fittest" or
other inappropriate aphorisms be the terms of the discourse. There is avarice,
sordid disregard for other people, and calculated intentional injury at work in
society's centers of power. These behaviors of men and woman are evil. They are
evils of Biblical proportions, damaging millions of people. The perpetrators are
working with full knowledge of the consequences of their actions. We, as
spiritual people, must respond in a religious way.
I don't know what Jesus or Thomas Starr King would do. But, this circumstance
of massive economic injustice calls for righteous anger, not merely spreadsheet
Listen, I love business and the challenge of making a profit. For me business
is a demanding, exciting, enjoyable, and good way to make a personal living. I
am a capitalist. Yet, businesses must compete, and society must guard against
monopoly control of the essentials of life. Figure out how to build a better
mousetrap, yes. Let the world beat a path to your door, get overwhelmingly rich,
do good with your money and live in luxurious comfort. On the other hand, if you
use governmental connections and fiat to control an essential market and then
you withhold food, water, heat, light, or the means to make a living from your
fellow men and woman, and you are not enjoying capitalism. You are enjoying the
spoils of corruption and you are spiritually ruined. You lose the protective
veil of economic argument. Your acts are wicked.
From our pulpit, we need spiritual direction to take with us during the week.
Direction which will let us avoid helpless personal passivity as we contemplate
the supposedly done deals of the energy manipulators.
This is what I ask from the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San
Francisco and its ministers. Give me your insight, and challenge me to find my
moral response to what is going on right in front of us. Be a faithful fool to
the energy skullduggery and let me know what you see. Hold in front of me the
reflection of schools paying for lights while canceling field trips. Remind me
of the my duty to open my eyes and witness reality with you.
We need to hear to ministerial thunder crash down on the corrupt ears of
those who are heedless of justice in their pursuit of personal profit. We need
to hear challenged by name Migden, Shelley, Burton, Speier, and our other
representatives rich with personal political power and desperately poor in the
ability to produce appropriate policy.
We need calls to our souls asking that we think about today's issues
with moral lucidity. We must hear this phasing in church for the evil are
not going to volunteer to burden their handiwork with any such terms. They
want us to talk about market forces, technical shortages, and other
phrases which drain arguments of ethical values. Instead, we need
spiritual recharging which will clear our minds of the numbing, amoral,
specialized terminology preferred by the mendacious minded.
Outside of the church walls, let our ministers write damning articles,
pander to radio shows, and shamelessly pose for television. Let them use
all moral means to draw attention to the religious side of this on-going
It is the task of other institutions and individuals to stage rallies
and wave placards. It is the task of others to pierce faux bankruptcies
which allow corporations to pay huge bonuses to executives on the eve of
claimed insolvency and then to plead inability to pay the property taxes
which support our schools and social services. It is the task of others to
jail executive crooks.
It is the task of our spiritual institution to remain an oasis both for
righteousness and for the love of every human. It is our task to pound the
drum for moral thought. We must also challenge, implore, and welcome back
those frail men and woman who have descended into the depths of petty,
money-loving, pure-and-simple sin.
Unitarian Universalist values speak strongly to the current
public crisis. Our spiritual traditions and our moral precepts have been
forged and tested in worlds filled with weak men and women. Our
forbearers would recognize all to well the daunting array of power
aligned against justice and morality.
As spiritual people it is our mission to recognize - and to witness -
the moral transgressions of our day. We are called on to name evil when it
unequivocally appears in our lives. We need the reinforcement of our
Unitarian Universalist heritage as we contemplate how to live spiritually
Evil is small and petty, even when it is successful. Our vigilance, our
values, our spirit, and our outrage are mighty. Let us use all of our
strengths. Let us recognize public immoral actions, name them, rise up,
and point toward the waiting path of righteousness.