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Beyond Darwin and Lincoln

General Assembly 2008 Event 2009

On February 12, 2009, we'll celebrate the birthday bicentennial of two of the most influential men of the 19th century—Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

The first was the father of racial equality in America. The second opened our eyes to the processes of natural change, laying the groundwork for modern biology and ecology. On this auspicious occasion, it's appropriate to ask: Where are we now with the movements they started? How do we take new and more capable steps down these roads in the 21st century?

Those questions were at the heart of an exchange between Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman and Rev. Dr. Peter Morales, the two candidates running for the UUA presidency in 2009. Moderated by Rev. Bob Murphy of the Cape Cod church—and attended by a standing-room-only crowd—the "Beyond Darwin and Lincoln" workshop explored possible directions the UUA might go on both fronts in the years ahead.

The consensus (which is emerging in several sessions throughout this GA, and which Van Jones will no doubt address directly in the Ware Lecture on Saturday night) is that social and economic justice on one hand, and environmental right action on the other, can no longer be accurately treated as two separate issues. "When we do violence to the environment, we can't help but eventually do violence to our fellow humans," Rev. Morales asserted in his opening remarks. Citing the role America's thirst for oil played in igniting the Iraq War, the NAFTA-driven agricultural policies that are driving Mexican and Central American immigrants northward, and the worldwide privatization of water as examples, Morales argued that "when elite groups want to profit from the environment, violence is often the result....when the environment is exploited, it is the weakest and most oppressed among us who suffer the most."

Seen this way, sustainability becomes "the most important moral issue of our time"—because no environmental fix is sustainable if it's balanced on the backs of the weak and the poor.

Rev. Hallman offered her vision of the role liberal religion might play in facilitating this transition. If we are to change hearts and minds, she said, we need to both broaden and deepen our view of what the "interconnected web of life" really means. It's still an abstract idea to many people. She stressed the need for UUs to find new language that's so evocative that it will help us stay in right relationship with the earth all the time, think about systemic wholes, and stay focused on this goal for the several generations it will take for this change to take place. "We need to...think deeply about who we will be in a world that's increasingly fragile."

Hallman also worries that if we don't see the common roots between social and environmental problems, we'll take these issues and "beat each other up over them," which will keep us from ever getting them resolved. "We need humility. The issues are complex. We don't have all the answers, and we need to join with people who have the expertise. We need to ask ourselves if we can actually solve the problem." She suggests that we may have to expand our affirmations so they're not so human-centered, and reflect our intention to serve all of creation—instead of serving humanity, we're serving all creation or all creatures. Paraphrasing Thich Nhat Hanh, Hallman concluded: "We need to understand that we are who we are because of everything else that exists."

What role should the UUA play in facilitating these changes? The two candidates offered several suggestions.

Hallman directed many of her remarks to the spiritual side of the issue. In her view, the church should be a place of refuge and renewal for people who are doing the day-to-day work of changing the world, helping them reconnect to the spiritual roots that drive their work. To this end, programs like Green Sanctuaries are worthy expressions of our values—though she noted that UUs are often great at envisioning these kinds of programs, and often less capable when it comes to execution. Given the stakes, she said, we need to approach that truth with some humility, and resolve to follow through with well-planned benchmarks until the goals are reached. "We've got to walk the talk," she declared. "But we need to do it in an efficient and capable way."

Morales sees the church forming coalitions with other groups that share our values; and believes that the UUA president should be a powerful spokesperson on issues of water, human rights, and related issues. In his view, being the UUA president is about leadership, not management. "He has access nobody else has, and can raise issues nobody else can." He noted that his church is one of 14 Green Sanctuary congregations, and has instituted ethical eating and social justice task forces. He also noted that, through close coordination with the UU Service Committee, the church's efforts could become global in their reach.

"My experience is that nature is amoral in and of itself. If there's going to be morality, it's something we create for ourselves." He noted (more than once) that the more people become aware of the degree to which we are all connected, the more authentically and easily their sense of compassion and empathy seem to flow.

Coming from Texas and Colorado, respectively, Hallman and Morales both have seen their share of school board fights over evolution. In response to a question from the audience, they expressed their intention that the UUA would do more in the future to meet this threat to reason head-on—and their conviction that there would be no shortage of opportunities to engage it.

"One of the mistakes we make is to be respectful where no respect is due with regards to the religious right," asserted Morales. "There's been no doubt about the science for a long time—so why does the religious right bear false witness by pretending there's a scientific debate? What part of not bearing false witness did you not get?"

Both ministers noted that there's too little information available that will enable local congregations to equip themselves for these battles. Hallman noted that Michael Dowd—"a sort of evangelist for Darwin"—is working on a set of frames that can be used publicly in these discussions. Dowd has been profiled in the New York Times, and is working on a book that may prove very useful to people fighting these battles on the ground.

Several questions, including one from co-panelist Rev. Dr. Beth A Johnson of UUFETA, revolved around the way the two candidates integrate ecological justice into their personal and spiritual lives. Who were their teachers? Where did they find inspiration? What practical steps have they taken to green up their own lives?

Hallman recalled the late Harry Scofield as one of her favorite teachers. "Harry taught me it was crucial to take time to sit outside every day and wait. You learn a lot doing that." What she has learned from this discipline is that "nature in all its glory is fierce and humbling, not always sweet and glorious.

"My personal spiritual practice takes into account the fact that we do kill. Even the vegans among us take to survive. We've so commodified our little plastic packages of food that we forget that we're actually taking from the earth. But to be alive, we take."

Over the centuries, Hallman continued, religion has always given homage to the fact that being part of the whole means that we have a sacred relationship with "that which must die so we can live." Restoring that relationship may begin with something as simple as a blessing. "We don't bless each other. We've gotten out of the practice of blessing our food. We would be better off if we sat in a moment of thanks, recognizing that there is always a sacrifice to sustain us as we go."

Personally, she recycles, drives a Prius "which counts for a lot, especially in Dallas, which loves big cars and considers the Prius counter-culture." She buys food at farmers' markets and eats locally where possible. Her church has pressured restaurants to give their excess to food banks. "I live with restraint, compassion, and sustainability in mind....My lifestyle is sustainable to the extent that it can be."

Morales noted that the sense of awe is a fundamental human and religious experience. His homepage carries NASA photographs of deep space that change every day, which "helps me keep it in perspective"—and he finds spiritual inspiration in the natural sciences, which document the complexity of nature's interrelationships. He also feels a strong spiritual connection to the Rocky Mountains near his home: "I walk along a creek every day, and enjoy spectacular storms."

On a practical level, Morales said that he recycles and gardens, and keeps his air-conditioning and furnace use to a minimum. He and his wife buy organic, grass-fed, humanely treated meat. She rides the bus to work. He's proud that his congregation is one of 14 UUA congregations to meet the requirements as a Green Sanctuary.

More generally, said Morales, all the great religious traditions foster a sense of connection to other people, to life, to the past and future across time, to the Summation, and to the holy. When we experience that connection, empathy and gratitude follows, and we move naturally into right relationship with the world. He also noted that while we can't live without killing, we have an ethical duty to minimize the suffering of the beings that die to sustain us.

Toward the end of the conversation, the two candidates offered their visions for what UUs need to do to meet the future.

"As we move forward, we're going to have to remake the world economic system," declared Morales. "There's constantly going to be an advocacy role, because there are so many pressures that lead to further exploitation—and there's real temptation between the First and Third World to dump our problems on Third World. And we're not a big movement, so we have to find the right partners and coalitions to do this work with."

Furthermore, said Morales, the church can provide education and leadership regarding the ways social and economic justice is interconnected with preserving the environment. He cited Hurricane Katrina and the Indonesian tsunami last year as powerful lessons that make us acutely aware of these connections. "It's crazy for us to get into picking at which injustice is worse."

Hallman invoked her friend Campbell Reed, who told her that the most important thing the church could do was to "not give in to catastrophic thinking," which can paralyze us and keep us from taking any action at all. "We need to continue to buoy people with hope"—not Pollyanna-type wishful thinking, but keeping the larger picture in mind in ways that keep people moving forward.

Noting where we find ourselves—in Fort Lauderdale, surrounded by yachts, attended by immigrant workers, and encircled by Homeland Security—Hallman said that, in the face of all the contradictions, "we can't be so high-minded that we can't see the economic interconnections. Let's work smart, use the people whose expertise we leave at the door, make our efforts smart, effective, and life-changing."