An Immoderate Energy Philippic

This essay was read from the pulpit of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco during the June 10, 2001 worship service.

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 hall.

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.

California Governor Gray Davis 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 gouging corporations?

No.

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 adjustments.

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. Member of the Assembly, Carole Migden

 

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 injustice.

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 and responsibly.

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.

-- Galen Workman

2001 Galen Workman. All rights reserved. Permission is given to any organization affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association to copy or distribute this document provided that credit is given to the author or to the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco and this copyright notice is included in any distribution.

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