Earth-Honoring Faith: A to Z

I’ve just completed a two-week workshop on Earth-Honoring Faith at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. I’ve written a series of short reflections on my experience here.

You can read them in this long blog post or download them in this pdf: Earth-Honoring Faith A to Z.

 

From A to Z – an Abecedary Journal of Reflections & Insights during the Earth-Honoring Faith Workshop at Ghost Ranch, July 2-8, 2017

David R. Weiss

A short note to those reading this “from the outside.” The Earth-Honoring Faith—Journey of the Universe workshop was the last of a ten-year series of EHF workshops curated by Larry Rasmussen at Ghost Ranch. Each workshop had a slightly different entry point (this year it was the film/book, Journey of the Universe) into conversation and reflection about how to midwife an “earth-honoring faith” in Christianity (but also in other faith traditions), one cognizant of current science, committed to addressing climate change, and able to foster a renewed mutuality with Earth and beyond.

Our incredible faculty for the week were:

  • Larry Rasmussen, Reinhold Neibuhr Professor Emeritus, Union Theological Seminary. He is author of many books and articles on Eco-Ethics including Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key.
  • Mary Evelyn Tucker, Senior Lecturer & Research Scholar at Yale University in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Divinity School, and the Department of Religious Studies. A specialist in Asian religions, she is co-author (with Brian Swimme) of Journey of the Universe, and carries out multiple projects with her husband, John Grim.
  • John Grim, Senior Lecturer & Research Scholar at Yale University in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Divinity School, and the Department of Religious Studies. A specialist in Native American & indigenous religions, he is co-director (with Mary Evelyn Tucker) of the Forum on Religion & Ecology at Yale, co-author of Ecology and Religion, and co-director/co-editor of the Harvard conference/book series, World Religions and Ecology.
  • Bill Brown, William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. Bill has written extensively on biblical perspectives of creation, including The Seven Pillars of Creation: Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder and Sacred Sense.
  • Betty Holley, Professor of Environmental Ethics & African American Religious Studies at Payne Seminary and a presiding Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
  • Julianne Lutz Warren, Fellow at the Center for Humans & Nature with a Ph.D. in conservation ecology. She is author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, an intellectual biography of his land ethic.

 

Each day at Ghost Ranch I set aside time in the afternoon and evening—often outside the Welcome Center until midnight—processing my thoughts from the day. Some are personal insights, most are drawn from the day’s presentations. They’re still largely unedited. And I didn’t write them in alphabetical order, but once I’d written the first couple (Night and Motion) I saw a pattern worth pursuing, and I followed it until I filled out the whole alphabet. I have so much more I could write about—and will. But this collection will be a seed packet. Who knows what will sprout from it?

Of course—these are MY reflections. They can’t begin to speak to the whole experience, but they offer a glimpse of mine.

 

Foreword – a reflection on my way to Ghost Ranch

Driving from Albuquerque to Santa Fe I find myself swallowed—no, embraced—by landscape that is at once foreign and familiar. I don’t know this land. Not on the outside. I’ve only been a tourist here on a few brief occasions. But it seems as if this land knows me … as if, on the inside we are already well-acquainted.

Yes, there is a sparse stunning beauty on the horizon. The mountains, if not quite majestic are more than respectable. But it’s the close-up landscape that greets me like a friend. The scraggly land that only rarely—here and there, now and then—bursts into vibrant green. More often the land waits, unapologetically, between a dry brown and a windy tan, with only the barest hint of faded green. Like me.

This land echoes my inner landscape so well it is impossible not to feel instinctively at home, affirmed by the ground under my feet. It’s good to be here.

A is for Alchemy. In centuries past (likely still in some minds today) alchemy names the proto-scientific ambition that sought to transmute some common substance (usually some cheap metal) into something far more precious—often gold. Today we see it most often as a fool’s errand although the sincere diligence of its most ardent practitioners laid important groundwork for chemistry and pharmacy.

What I am learning this week is that while alchemy may well lie beyond the reach and patience of humanity, it is standard practice in the universe. From the Big Bang through supernovae and evolving life forms, alchemy is what the universe does. Starting with just quarks and leptons it fashioned hydrogen—and from there stars, planets, all the elements, oceans, plants, dinosaurs, and us.

It may overstate it to say the universe is consciously purposive. But is has been relentlessly creative and expansively expressive over its billions of year. Perhaps our place is not to play alchemist but to observe this alchemy already at play, to pursue an appreciative understanding, a posture of wonder, awe, gratitude.

 

B is for Bird. No happy tale, this one. Several years back the American Museum of Natural History was hiring an ornithologist (a bird expert). One of the most prestigious positions for an ornithologist in the world, the candidates were numerous and all top tier. When the search had been narrowed down to the final six candidates, each was invited to make a presentation on the bird that was the focus of their research.

At that point a sobering realization emerged. Of the six candidates, FOUR of them were studying birds that had gone extinct during the course of the researcher’s study. Life evaporating before their very eyes.

We aren’t perched on the edge of an extinction event; we have begun the cascade down the hill. As a direct result of this ominous intersection of human expertise and species extinction, the Museum added a dimension to their exhibits that treats the spiritual-religious facet of species loss, recognizing that this isn’t simply an historical event; it’s an existential one.

 

C is for Center. Our best science used to regard Earth as the center of all that is (which at the time wasn’t even the universe). Then Earth was displaced by the Sun (cause for no small bit of theological drama), but we still claimed the Sun-centered solar system as the center. Then we learned about not just stars but whole galaxies. And we discovered to our existential angst that we’re actually located in an outer arm of the Milky Way galaxy, swirling around its center, while floating in (what we thought was) a static universe. Now we know the universe itself is dynamic: in constant motion, still expanding from that initial Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago.

Here’s the scale: current best estimates are 100 billion or more stars in each galaxy—and likely as least one trillion galaxies in the universe. These galaxies are gathered in groups (of perhaps several dozen) that revolve around a center in their midst. These groups of galaxies revolve around yet another center in a cluster of galaxies (hundreds, perhaps thousands of galaxies to a cluster). And these clusters revolve around yet another center in superclusters of galaxies (comprising millions of galaxies at a time).

Here’s where it bends your mind. The center of our supercluster is a massive star at the center of the Virgo Cluster. Mathematical calculations confirm this star as “the” center of cosmic expansion. Everything is rushing away from this point. EXCEPT our best science right now says that every other supercluster (and there are millions of them) also has an exact center of cosmic expansion. There are millions of centers, all legitimately claiming with mathematical certainty and the gravitational pull to prove it, that THEY at the center of this universe. Boom. Mind blown. We can’t think that way for long.

But what if the same is true of religions? What if truth is not Christocentric or Judeo-Christian-centric or Abrahamic-centric? What if at the heart of all religions is a truth irreducible to others? What if, in our one universe, there are multiple centers of religious truth? Science (almost gleefully) bends our minds to tell us the truth of multiple cosmic centers. Would we expect spiritual truth to be any less challenging?

D is for DNA. Life’s evolved means of preserving the memory of its successes. Pythagoras’ greatest insight was his conviction that the essence, the ground of reality was not water, air, fire, but … number. Where many of us see only confusing equations, he saw sheer beauty in the endless array of precise mathematical patterns (including the theorem that bears his name).

But he couldn’t have known the extent to which he was right, not simply about abstract equations or the laws of physics or the exacting relationships that make for visual or auditory art, but about life itself. In DNA life codes its accomplishments in patterns. Meaning it doesn’t need to pass on each finished molecule from one generation to the next. It simply passes forward the genetic memory, the blueprint, so that each new generation can build on the last (occasionally improvising through mutations).

Most astonishingly if you think about it, through evolution DNA has “taken flight.” To some extent among animals who teach the use of tools, but especially among humans, with the development of symbol and language, life’s memory is no longer bound by genetic code. Through cultural tradition, religious heritage, the arts and humanities, and through scientific knowledge, we have “externalized” DNA.

Though hardly without risk. Our increased awareness, our self-consciousness, allows us to more actively “partner” with DNA than any other creature can. We help fashion the next generation by what we encode in rituals, books, and more. But whether by abusive eugenics, racist science, bigoted religion, or oppressive culture, sometimes what we pass forward is precisely what life would prefer to forget: dysfunctional hatreds that are hardly the fittest for survival. We have yet to learn how to consistently shape ourselves through wisdom.

 

E is for Earth. Every one of the speakers here refers to our planet as Earth. Not “the earth”; simply Earth as a name. It’s a rhetorical move I intentionally made in my own eco-speaking at churches over the past year, but I wasn’t aware of others doing the same. I do it to personalize the planet, to refuse to make language reduce this life-giving orb to an “It.” Following Martin Buber’s wisdom, calling Earth by name bestows a Thou-ness to the planet. (BUT—it’s a thou-ness that science increasingly suggests is less ours to bestow than to acknowledge.)

Tonight I recall words spoken this morning commemorating Rina Swentzell, a Pueblo wise woman and former teacher in this course who died not quite two years ago. Rina married an Anglo man and one of her daughters, Athena, spoke about how difficult it was growing up in the pueblo with features that followed her father’s Anglo heritage far more than her siblings. Just shy of outcast, she was consistently “edge-cast,” regarded as “less than” by many outside her immediate family. Athena said it was a tortuous childhood, yearning to belong, yet recognizing that belonging rests in the chosen embrace by others … in her case an embrace largely withheld. Until her mother told her as a young adult, “No, you don’t belong to the people. They do not choose whether you belong. You belong to Earth, and each day she upholds your feet, she is embracing you. You always belong.

Here, too, Earth not only stands before us as Thou. Indeed, her grace is that she “thou”-s us unconditionally and irrevocably. We are because she claims us as hers.

 

F is for Fusion & G is for Gravity. That these letters fall right next to each other in the alphabet is both convenient and appropriate. A bit like yin and yang, fusion and gravity represent forces that can hold each other in check and that provide the creative tension in which the universe unfolds.

Consider: it is gravity, driven by unimaginable mass, that presses elemental particles together until fusion occurs, ultimately pressing hydrogen into helium, generating the explosive energy of a star. But that explosive energy, rather than simply exhausting itself, is captured again by gravity, triggering another cycle of fusion. A star’s life is an explosion caught in suspended animation—with an emphasis on both words. It isn’t a frozen explosion, it’s an ongoing explosion that never dissipates (well, at least not for billions of years).

Two side comments. Gravity, the physical force of attraction between all things that have mass, might be analogous to love, the emotional force of attraction that pulls persons together. I often remark that I have a “blended” family, since Margaret and I “blended” our children together when we married. But I’ve heard two people here describe themselves as being from “fusion” families—a notion I like because it acknowledges what I’ve known to be true: when families, like elemental particles, are fused together by love, something more than the mere sum of parts results. Something altogether new—with a burst of transformative energy to boot.

 

H is for Hope. But we begin with hevel, the Hebrew word that opens the Book of Ecclesiastes. Often rendered as “vanity” (“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”), it’s a wispy word with lots of nuance. Other options: futility, absurdity, passing away, vaporous. One German commentator proposes Scheisse. It’s just the way life is: hevel happens.

Hevel speaks a real truth. Shit does happen. Our best hopes evaporate. Our dreams prove futile. These are undeniable aspects of human life. Absurdity makes a strong case for having the final word. Regarding climate change, hevel might ask, “What did you expect? Have you not been following human history? It’s populated by people with hevel for brains!”

But we need hope. So, consider hope a trustworthy hunger. How do we know it’s trustworthy? I’ll guess because it’s bound up with the memory of stars—the whole saga of the universe—woven into our psyches. We remain part of creation’s book, even if we’re no longer paying attention to the story. The story still claims us. I recall, playfully but purposefully, Winnie the Pooh and his honey pot. When Pooh gets lost in the woods, he follows the “rumbly in his tumbly”—his own trustworthy hunger—home to his honey pot. For us, the hunger to be at home on earth is trustworthy as hope comes. (I also believe religious traditions offer hope through their varied stories, symbols, and rituals. Personally, I see these as distinct doorways into the primal universal hope described above. My greatest “fluency” in is Christian hope, but I don’t regard it as more “true” than that of other traditions … or that of sheer scientific wonder. And some religious hope may be less earth-friendly than others.)

One caveat as we follow our hunger home. The more we re-member ourselves into the universe story, the more we’ll grieve for the pages we’ve ripped from the book (see “V is for Voices”). This grief is not disempowering, though it may be overwhelming. It represents the muted joy of getting closer to home.

Hevel happens, and is wont to revel in its happening. But hope—watered by tears—will have the last word. Because, finally, this story rests on perspective far larger and longer than ours. Be hungry. Go home.

 

I is for Intuition. How else to name the deep insights harbored in the sacred stories of indigenous peoples? (Plus, it was the word chosen by one of the Native women at our workshop.) I’m not concerned with the scientific “accuracy” of these many tales—and, I daresay, those who first told them weren’t either! Rather, these stories offered up the holy intuitions of those sages and seers in varied cultures whose vision outpaced science by centuries. Whose tales told truths far more fecund than mere facts. They tethered the people to the ground and sea, to the moon and stars, to the plants and animals, to the seasons of nature and the cycles of life. They didn’t imagine this web of life. No, they perceived its objective reality through the wisdom of their hearts. They saw our interconnections—often all the way to the stars—and simply spun tales so that others could hear the drama they intuitively knew.

I’m honestly not sure that modern ears (attuned to contemporary science and/or contemporary religion) can easily or fully “hear” what these indigenous traditions say today. The gaps in worldview are so great, it’s almost like trying to interpret a whale song. Such songs undeniably carry rich meaning, but rely on a “grammar” and “syntax” that we have yet to fathom. Regarding intuition, our contemporary minds have invested so much energy in linear-logical thought that we may well have rendered them incapable of hearing other tones. In which case, respectful listening to what we cannot hear may be the best we can do. And that virtue alone may help us hear.

J is for Journey. Of course. That’s the theme of the workshop: Journey of the Universe. In a nutshell, the point (the power!) of this unassuming phrase is that, far from being a static backdrop against our lives, the universe itself is an unfolding story—a drama, in which we have a role. This ought to humble us: we are, after all, players in a cast that includes supernovae and black holes—forces beyond anything we can conceive of. But it also ought to inspire us: we are the fruit of a story fourteen billion chapters in the making—and not one chapter is dispensable to our being here. It’s taken everything the universe has in it to reach this point where we step onto the stage. Whoa.

Sadly, we’ve assumed our role is to plunder our corner (read: planet) of the universe. Driven, I’d argue, by existential insecurity and a patriarchal order that equates dignity with dominance, we’ve invested deeply—and across centuries, perhaps millennia—in a project destined to be our death if we cannot find another role.

I recall the words of early feminist theologian Nelle Morton who said to her sisters, lest they be wearied by their own arduous journey toward gender justice, “the journey is home.” From Big Bang to first stars to our galaxy, our Sun, our Earth, we dwell within story upon story upon story. An endless cascade of journeys, one nested inside the other. Our role—uniquely ours because of our capacity for culture—is to be troubadours of the journey. To learn the stories as best we can and to find our place within them, offering songs (whether scientific, religious, philosophical, or artistic) that honor the journey we’re on.

 

K is for King. Today Betty Holley’s presentation on Martin Luther King, Jr. helped us see the profoundly creative connections between “King and the Cosmos.” Although understandably best known for his leadership in the civil rights movement, Betty showed how wholistic King’s vision of a truly universal justice was. It’s possible we prefer to keep King’s reach bound by race for our own comfort, but his words and wisdom touched on economics and militarization, indigenous rights and ecological concerns.

Far beyond the claim (itself resoundingly important[!]—though also historically conditioned) that “all men are brothers,” King also declared “all LIFE is inter-related,” comprising “an inescapable network of mutuality … a single garment of destiny.”

Moreover, his capacity to move the conscience of the nation on civil rights helped inspire the environmental movement—and the environmental justice movement (the wing of environmental activism focused also on racial justice). As Betty read through the Principles of Environmental Justice drafted in October 1991, the echo of King’s wholistic vision of justice, now embraced and developed by others, stilled the room in awe.

For me, it was a revelatory affirmation of what liberation theologians call the epistemological privilege of the poor: the clarity of vision that is uniquely accessible to those on the underside of systemic injustice. Suffering does not guarantee insight, but privilege almost always insures ignorance. And in this document, suffering’s voice is crystal clear. (http://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.html)

 

L is for Light. I’m a poet: I listen for evocative connections; I take delight in the suggestive. So listen to this. If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there to hear, does it make a sound? I’d say, No. It’s sending out a puff of waves, but if there are no ears to hear them, it just vibrations moving through air.

God said, “Let there be light.” Did anyone hear that? God doesn’t have physical ears, and there were no humans and no animals around to pick up those “spoken” vibrations. I know, it’s all myth. I agree. But play along. Listen for the delight.

The Milky Way is a galaxy with a spiral structure. When scientists first noted its spiral “arms,” they thought the arms were comprised of matter swirling around the galaxy’s center. Now they understand that the spirals are caused by gravitational waves pulsing outward through the galaxy. Think waves of powerful attraction, waves of love.

Imagine the vibrations of God’s breath saying “Let there be light,” despite there being no ears to hear the words. Only silent vibrations pulsing outward. But as these words-waves move they pull gas clouds together with such force (love) that they IGNITE into massive stars—“Light!”—and burn for millions of years until they’re expended and the waves-words pulse further outward igniting more stars along the way. We SEE Genesis 1:3 occurring in the spiral arms of galaxies, the universe responding to God’s soundless-but-brilliant call for light.

 

M is for Motion. We started the morning 250 million years ago up on the mesa. The ground exposed under our feet used to host a jungle populated by dinosaurs. Part of Pangea back then (the great singular land mass before our current continents went their own ways) this ground was equatorial at the time. Like me, it traversed a thousand miles or more to get here this morning. Now some cosmic dance places us as partners. Here. Today.

Later on—the layers in the exposed mountains tell the story—this land was all sand dunes. Dried out by a mountain range, itself long since expired, that stopped all the rain on the western slopes. And millions of years after that, it was a large inland sea. Jungle, dunes, seabed. These are my neighbors in this place across time. And they have graciously welcomed me to the neighborhood.

 

N is for Night. Sunday night—my first night here. When have I known the comfort of such dark? When has silence been such an intimate companion? Too rarely, for sure.

My roommate headed to bed shortly after nine. I showered, gathered my things and headed to the library, where I read and reviewed notes for tomorrow’s conversation. From 9:30-10:30 I was alone … then the high school and/or college kids came. Hardly noisy, but the stillness was gone. By 11 I finished my work and had my phone & laptop fully charged. I made my way, clothed in darkness, to the Welcome Center where the rock patio stills holds a bit of the day’s warmth, and I have been sitting in the dark wrapped in nothing but stillness. No voices. No cars. No media. The lazy chirp of crickets at most.

I don’t imagine I could live like this daily. I know I could. In this expanse the voices that clamor inside me don’t feel so much urge to run amok seeking attention. They quiet down and organize themselves into something like a lilting symphony. A soothing melody with myriad variations that rolls like a lazy—friendly—river behind my thoughts without disrupting them.

I was made for silence. Sure, I am head over heels in love with words. But apart from silence, they become unruly noise. In the stillness they unfold themselves with the patience of leaves. It is such joy.

And this: whoever taught us to be afraid of the dark did so to keep us from learning the liberating wisdom that lies beyond sight. (Yes, I know there are things to fear in the dark, though no less fearsome things operate in broad daylight if we’re honest.) But darkness carries a beauty deeper than eyes can see. Not simply that it compels us to look inward—but that it reminds us, sometimes, simply to stop looking at all.

 

O is for O’Keeffe. Georgia O’Keeffe, of course. The famous artist stumbled upon Ghost Ranch in 1934, first spending summers here in a rented cottage, eventually managing to buy the house and a few acres of land. She spent her summers here exploring the terrain on foot and then capturing it on canvas. A loner all her life, she sought isolation on the Ranch and only uneasily fashioned alliances with the other residents. When she could no longer live at the ranch, she retired to Santa Fe, eschewing social contact to the end, declaring, “I find people very difficult.” Me, too.

I need to add—and quickly—that there are plenty of people I love: Margaret, my six kids, nine grandchildren, parents, siblings, and plenty of other family and friends to make a short working list.

But the truth is, my best gifts, my deepest joys and strongest sense of purpose, unfold mostly in solitude … and tend to wither in its absence. I might well fall prey to despair were I not tethered to others, but I need to cultivate space—especially in the form of time and solitude—for my best self to come forward more consistently. I want more “social balance” than Ms. O’Keeffe chose, but no less honesty. So, although I don’t say if very often, here it is: I find people very difficult. J

 

P is for play. Longer recess may have begun as a genetic mutation that lengthened our childhood, humanizing us in two distinctive ways. We see “play” in the young of many mammals—it carries an essential role in building the skills that equip them to successfully navigate their world. But as childhood lengthened dramatically for our earliest human ancestors, they spent successively more and more time “at recess.”

First, this meant their brains had significantly more time to mature while still young, tutored by play in ways that stretched and deepened cognitive development beyond anything the animal kingdom had ever seen. Second, one “by-product” of play that followed us into adulthood is doing things that bring delight as an end in themselves. Thus, sport, art, literature, music, dance are all instances of “play” polished to a fine point. Indeed, the freedom we experience as beings with a sense of choice is also a form of play carried forward into adulthood.

Ironically, under this hypothesis, we stand—in truth—not simply on the shoulders of our wisest elders, but equally on the giggles of those mischievous children in our distant past.

Carrying this notion one step further, many development theorists (I’m thinking particularly of James Fowler) posit a stage of post-conventional awareness in which adults—those who reach it anyway—experience a second naiveté, an ability to relish wonder and complexity with joy that is play in its richest form. Unfortunately, modern society—from education to market to employer to parish—all conspire to halt our development shy of post-conventional maturity. Today, more than ever, if we hope to bequeath a breathing planet to a next generation of children, we adults must remember how to link the knowledge we have to the wisdom of play.

 

Q is for Quest. I am my own worst critic. (That’s sheer assumption—maybe people say worse things about me behind my back than I imagine. I just know the critical voices in my head can be severe, even savage.) Blessed with many gifts, I rarely manage to bring them together with focus. Despite my plentiful passion, my days are usually defined more by distraction than determination, shaped more by my anxieties than my aspirations.

I’ll be honest. My “quest” in coming here was fundamentally to disrupt the distracting rhythms of my life sufficiently to re-center myself. Yes, “earth-honoring faith” is a central passion for me, and cultivating some contacts and deepening my understanding will be helpful. But I needed something more than another academic conference. I needed a setting that invited personal transformation as much as professional development. Ghost Ranch has been that for me. (And—holy shit!—I still have eight more days here!)

Maybe next week, after the workshop is over and I’m here as part of the Adult Service Corps (read: free labor for five hours/day), I’ll take in the museums and a few hikes. This week—maybe you’ve noticed—I’m writing. Processing each day’s ideas a bit, although I barely scratch the surface of all there is to think about. Most importantly, I am daily re-making myself. Giving words and silence the place they need in order for determination, focus, and joy to blossom in my life. (But see “V is for Voices”; this joy is both gracious gift to my soul and anchor for soul-rending grief.)

This is heart-work for me. Remembering who I am and what I need. Tending the desert in my soul. I came to the right place, surrounded by the right people, to do this work. And I’m determined to carry a well-tended desert back with me to the land of ten thousand lakes.

R is for Religious. I won’t argue if you’re skeptical. Religious traditions have done their damned best to stain their own image. They’re too often pressed into the service of top-down power and hierarchy. Wielded as cultural weapons rather than serving as wombs for wonder, they are—without question—ambiguous at best.

And yet, how else to stand before a world—from the terrain our eyes meet to the stars rushing away to ancient days beyond our gaze—a world “charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)? Go ahead and replace God with Mystery or Allure. Reduce it to a capital-G Grandeur, and put the period right there, if you wish. The bottom line is that, given our sensuous perception and given the world’s sheer Isness, our fundamental response should begin with wonder and awe.

And religious (keeping organized and institutionalized religion at arm’s length) is the human posture that allows wonder to wind its way like ivy around our lives. It invites awe to grow in our souls. Finally, being religious is not about believing in God or practicing strict rituals. It is about meeting the world with a deep bow of boundless gratitude. Now go practice.

 

S is for Stardust. It sounds fanciful to say, but it’s true, we carry stardust in our hearts. The iron that reddens our blood was born in stars. Indeed, all the elements that comprise this planet, from rocks to plants to animals—all of this is made from stardust. But we alone know this.

The Earth Charter, which we reviewed today, is glorious in its aspirational vision for our life together. It’s like a moral murmuration (see W is for Whirlpool): a glimpse of human lives moving in full alignment in a pattern of justice. It’s what moral consciousness looks like under the right conditions so that universal self-organizing dynamics can emerge.

It’s also a long way from aspirational charter to actual change. I get that. But stardust! In its powerful Preamble, the Earth Charter summons us, both individually and collectively, to a life geared toward “being more rather than having more.” That change needs to happen (and quickly, because the time is short!) in our lives, our communities, our common commitments, our governments, our actions of resistance and hope. But it begins in how we see ourselves. It begins in our hearts—the very stardust core of our being.

We are stars come to life. It’s time for us to trace our genealogy back to the beginning. To find our place in a proud family, where our ancestors truly shine down on us each night. A family where it is already an honor, already enough, simply to be.

 

T is for Touch. This is perhaps THE challenge of “earth-honoring faith.” Yes, we need to grasp the basics of the science, both cosmology and climate change. And, yes, we need to reckon soberly with the implications of our present economic-industrial inertia for our livelihood on the planet—and the livelihood of our fellow fauna and flora. But we need more than this.

We need to touch hearts. The stark numbers are essential, but they don’t tell the whole story. In fact, for most people, numbers don’t tell stories at all. Which is exactly why religion (and arts of every kind) have a crucial role to play here. We must move people to grief, to hope, to imagine, to resolve, to resist, to renew. Our knowledge must find expression in stories that can touch.

 

U is for Us. Though likely not the “us” to which your mind races. I’m thinking of the “us” in Gen 1:26. “Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings …’” Many have wondered or argued at length over this “us.” Some say it’s simply an instance of “the royal ‘we,’” as when a monarch speaks on behalf of the whole realm. Others believe it shows God speaking to the angels. And still others hold that it reflects an early intimation of the Trinity. I don’t really care, but I’m going to cast my vote for a yet more evocative reading.

Genesis tells us, “God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation …’” creatures …’” and “God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures …’” and “God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures …’” (1:11, 20, 24) I don’t imagine for a minute that the author of Genesis is making scientific or historical claims. He’s spinning a tale that will orient his people meaningfully in the world in which they dwell. But it does seem significant that he portrays a God who works with creation in creative partnership.

So, given what we know today of life’s unfolding course, why not read the “us” as God turning to the entire animal kingdom (all brought forth in the immediately preceding verses), and saying to them with a grand evolutionary invitation, “Now, let us—all of you creatures—let us together make human beings in our image … so that they carry within themselves both the seeds of creaturely roots and the aspirations of God.”

 

V is for Voices. A whole symphony of them. Silent. Silenced. Tonight we listened to audio recordings of birdsongs of five birds gone extinct in the past century. I was wholly unprepared. These songs were instances of aural beauty that will. Never. Be. Sung. Again.

We heard them tonight. Though not resurrected. Still fully dead. Songs from beyond the grave. As I listened a macabre scene played out in my head against my own wishes. I imagined myself plucking each bird, feather by feather, until I took each brutally bared body and twisted the neck to stop the song. Forever.

Julianne Warren’s presentation was as exquisitely poignant as anything I’ve experienced. Teary-eyed and breathless, I scrawled in my notebook, “Oh————you ripped a hole in my soul! I did not know how to feel such grief. Only that I needed to. And you led me there. What a strange thing to say ‘thank you’ for.”

I know, I’m not to blame. But my “innocence” does those birds no good. And I have my own strong intuition that hope is something sown deep in the soil of our souls, where it requires the salty water of tears before it sprouts. Tonight I watered hope.

 

W is for Whirlpool. This patterning effect occurring with water is emblematic of the self-organizing dynamics at work within the universe. Seemingly present at all levels of matter and perhaps responsible for producing the spark of life itself, these dynamics are manifest when matter—even at a very simple chemical level, encounters conditions that lead it to organize itself spontaneously (and without any outside direction) into a patterned and persisting order. From crystalline structures to nanoparticles, from whirlpools in water to murmurations by starlings, we see a universal tendency to resist entropy (the tendency toward disorder and chaos) with creative pattern.

Hardly inevitable unless the conditions are right, self-organizing dynamics might offer a clue to human morality. My own flight of fancy here (still refining it): is it possible that ethical principles like justice, compassion, altruism, mutuality and so forth are the “moral whirlpools” that appear in human consciousness—under the right conditions? Might they represent consciousness intuitively organizing itself for life-giving purposes.

Within matter, self-organizing dynamics arise only when the physical conditions are right—temperature, pressure, etc. Otherwise entropy holds sway. So … are there conditions—physical, social, spiritual—that are prerequisite to the emergence of life-giving morality? I suspect so. And it feels rather pressing to discern them before entropic morality (principles, to be sure, but ones “guiding” life toward chaos) wins the day … at least in this corner of the universe.

 

X is for X, X + 1. I know, it seems like I’m reaching here, but wait until you see where I’m going. This morning we looked at Proverbs 30:18-19 as a text showing the biblical declaration of wonder for creation. It’s an example of “graded numerical parallelism.” What does THAT mean? Glad you asked. Simply put, as Bill Brown, our speaker, explained, the first clause speaks of X number of things, and the next one makes the same clam regarding X + 1. J

Here’s the verses:

Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand:

the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock,

the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of one lover with another.

And here’s the wonder. The poem declares its awe for creation by exclaiming in wonder at the mystery manifest in natures three great domains—no, four. The way a bird moves across the sky, the way a snake moves across the ground, the way a ship moves across the waters—and, most especially, the way love moves across human hearts.

A simple poem, astonishing in its exquisite reach for wonder, made clear by x, x + 1.

 

Y is for You. Yes, you. It’s the penultimate letter in the alphabet, but I’ve saved writing this reflection until the very end. In Journey to the Universe (p. 122), Mary Evelyn Tucker & Brian Swimme describe the existential restlessness that marks humanity: “Other species found their biome and settled into it, but nothing has seemed to satisfy us fully. Every place we went we felt we were at home, yet not at home.” They go on to suggest that perhaps our vocation is to so immerse ourselves in the wonder of this entire place—from Earth to space—that “we become the human form of the universe,” and that perhaps only then will we find ourselves at home on Earth.

I agree. But my mind is still pondering the phrase “other species found …”, and I hear “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but …” (Luke 9:58)—which, of course, is Jesus talking about himself. And I can’t help but wonder, Were we mistaken in thinking he was talking only about himself? We (Christians, at least!) are eager to maintain Jesus’ monopoly on messianic status … as though that’s the highest honor we can accord him. But what if that “honor” undermines his entire message? (I’m just asking.)

But I am really asking. What if Jesus was actually modeling messiah—for all of us? As our universal vocation. What if incarnation is our common calling? What if being a Cosmic Christ—someone chosen by God … by the Universe … smeared with oil (anointed) … selected by evolution … seeded by stardust … to be representative of Love—what is THIS is my destiny—and yours? Yes, you.

 

Z is for Zest. Specifically, “zest for life,” a favorite phrase of Teilhard de Chardin. But “favorite” misstates it. For de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist and theological cosmologist, zest for life names the quality of the human spirit on which our survival depends. It is the perseverance to survive against all odds, the determination to get up again, and again, to press forward. But it is not Sisyphean fatalism or stoic resignation. Zest for life involves taking stark account of the situation in front of you, assuming full responsibility for the weight your choices carry for tomorrow, and drawing deeply on the subterranean spring of joy that feeds the soul … not with happiness but with something far grittier: zest for life.

Whether you conceive of this zest as fed by God or by Nature or by Human Spirit writ large, this zest—think faith in its most visceral expression—is quite likely what will determine whether tomorrow dawns on a world that includes us, or one in which our memory fades to extinction. So, here’s to Zest!

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David R. Weiss

drw59mn@gmail.com

 

Open Letter to St. Kate’s Adjunct Faculty

Dear St. Kate’s adjunct faculty—

I write to you as co-steward of Hamline’s Adjunct Faculty Union, SEIU Local 284.

I know you recently received ballots for your union election. You may have already marked and mailed your ballot. I’m writing to those of you still contemplating your vote. I hope it’s YES.

I’ve been an adjunct instructor of religion at Hamline since 2004. I’ve also taught as an adjunct at Augsburg (2002-2005) and St. Kate’s (2003-2009). From spring 2014 to the present I’ve been involved in organizing, bargaining, and serving as a steward for Hamline’s union.

From that vantage point, the first thing that struck me in reading the information about “unionization efforts” on the university website and the President’s personal appeal to you is how frightfully scared St. Kate’s is of the prospect of a union.

They’ve given you several of the gains we had to bargain hard for (such as a significant pay increase). But that’s precisely because we unionized and bargained for them right next door. The improvements you’ve seen at St. Kate’s (pay, parking, office space, committee) are an effort to stop the union process. Having taught as an adjunct for fifteen years in the Twin Cities, I can say from experience: our pay was flat, our concerns largely ignored, our voices virtually invisible until unionization began. This is true even of Macalester and St. Thomas. The gains they experienced came because of their union rumblingsand because of our union success.

Why would St. Kate’s be so determined to avoid a union that they’d even start offering you union-style improvements without one? Simply put: to avoid sharing power with you, which is the sine qua none of a just relationship. They hope to take the edge off your discontent while keeping you as far as possible from becoming a collective voice that can shape your own future. Gains that come as charity are always controlled by others—and can always be withdrawn. A union makes you a full partner in the venture of creating conditions of justice for your teaching—conditions that empower you vocationally and that support the most effective teaching that you can do … ultimately, conditions that support the best learning opportunities for your students.

I don’t say this to “attack” St. Kate’s. It is, quite simply, the way power operates in most spheres, and it’s endemic in higher education today. Given the escalating power differentials between university administration and faculty of all levels, unionized faculty offer perhaps the best protection for a vital culture of education—because unions provide those doing the teaching with a measure of power to balance out the priorities of those counting the dollars and the numbers. It’s not that dollars and numbers don’t matter. It’s that increasingly they drive everything. If you unionize, you not only claim a measure of power for yourselves and your vocation, you also help protect the power of fulltime faculty because you insure that adjuncts are no longer an exploitable resource that can be played off against fulltime positions. See the AAUP’s One Faculty statement on this on depth of fulltime faculty solidarity with us.

I also want to respond to the President’s most recent direct appeal to you.

It’s no doubt true that you’ll make the best progress at St. Kate’s by working together with administrators. Absolutely. But unionizing won’t “get in the way” of that—unless the university chooses to vindictively “punish” you once you unionize. Rather, a union empowers you to pursue that progress together with the university on terms that insure your gains are preserved and your future goals are set by your collective voice, not by the administration.

I heard the claim that SEIU is not the right union for adjunct faculty often at Hamline, too. It is, in fact, a thinly veiled attempt at the “politics of division,” suggesting that we should feel “better than” the “mere” service workers that comprise most of SEIU’s members. Coming from the president of a university steeped in the Catholic tradition of deep respect for the dignity of all labor, this is an appeal to your lesser instincts. I’ll counter by noting three things.

First, the transience and relative isolation that are hallmarks of adjunct teaching have also made us easy targets to exploit over the past decades. SEIU has a vibrant successful history of organizing workers who labor under conditions that make them easy targets to exploit.

Second, SEIU’s vision statement says, “We are members united by the belief in the dignity and worth of workers and the services they provide and dedicated to improving the lives of workers and their families and creating a more just and humane society.” (seiu.org) That mission aligns so closely with St. Kate’s they ought to be pleased you’re working with SEIU.

Third, later this summer, through SEIU’s Faculty Forward Congress, I’ll travel to DC to join unionized adjunct faculty and graduate instructors from across the U.S. in laying further groundwork for the labor movement in higher education. Unionization is just coming to adjunct faculty, and SEIU is among the unions leading this work. Yes, they still have plenty to learn, but they are committed to doing this work right and doing it well—and to bringing our voices into the leadership of that work. I am one of those voices.

While it’s true that any union contract expresses an “agreement” between you and your employer, so long as both St. Kate’s and the union are focused on pursuing conditions under which teaching flourishes, vocations are supported, and justice is done, then agreement will happen. In fact, the only conditions under which the president’s claim, “union representation guarantees you nothing,” is true is if the president is committed in advance to obstruct agreement with a union. And, frankly, that’s all the more reason to unionize, in order to insure that you have the power to actually fashion and choose agreement rather than merely submit to it.

As a lead organizer, negotiator, and now co-steward of the Hamline union—and with two decades of teaching religion as my primary vocation—I’m honestly weary of hearing the union portrayed as some “third party.” It’s not. The union is YOU. It’s your voice. Your energy. Your goals. Yes, there are SEIU staff to support you, but I attest personally that at Hamline adjunct faculty leaders had final say—and exercised it—in every single decision we made. Staff from the union local advised us, shared resources, and assisted us throughout the organizing and bargaining process. I hope President Roloff doesn’t view the AAUP, in which many fulltime faculty maintain membership, as a “third party” nuisance at St. Kate’s. As an organization SEIU fulfills a similar role for adjunct faculty. Be very clear: an Adjunct Faculty Union at St. Kate’s will be 100% comprised of and led by adjunct faculty from St. Kate’s. It’s simply untrue to call the union a third party; it’s YOU.

Having taught at St. Kate’s for six years and worked in campus ministry there for three years as well, I know the school has the long legacy of fostering justice. I find it disappointing that the president cannot imagine a unionized—that is, an empowered-for-partnership—adjunct faculty as an opportunity to extend that legacy into tomorrow.

Hamline shares similarly deep roots of social justice, and our administration has also found it difficult at times to meet us on terms of true collaboration. But we are in this for the long haul. We know that anytime unequal power relationships are disrupted—as unionizing does—some folks, especially those who find themselves needing to share power they’d prefer to hold unilaterally, react with anxiety and even anger. We’ve felt both at Hamline. But we’ve also seen progress; we’ve also won respect. And we remain confident that a brighter future is built by justice than by charity. It’s in our tradition as much as it’s in yours. We are reminding our respective administrations in practice of the ideals to which they are committed too often only in theory.

When you unionize, you’ll join Augsburg and Hamline in establishing unions at three of the five historic ACTC schools. At that point, we achieve a critical mass that allows us not only to pursue goals that strengthen our teaching on our respective campuses, we gain the leverage to partner across campuses, strengthening the position of our adjunct peers and our fulltime colleagues throughout the Twin Cities. Quite beyond simply improving our own working and teaching conditions (which are also our students’ learning conditions!), with critical mass we have the opportunity to help reset the priorities in higher education so that education rather than economics is the animating factor in our vision.

Ironically, you could read all of St. Kate’s “official” information on unionization on the website and learn that Macalester and St. Thomas (both mentioned by name) made the “right” choice in the administration’s eyes. But you won’t see Augsburg and Hamline—whose adjunct faculty have unionized—mentioned anywhere. There’s acknowledgement of certain “higher education systems” that did unionize, but we’re left un-named because we made the “wrong” choice. It’s a dismissive, almost insulting rhetorical move by a university dedicated to educating women, who’ve often been similarly strategically erased and unnamed by those who found their pursuit of dignity inconvenient. It’s a very telling move on the part of your administration.

No, I don’t think unions are perfect (neither are universities). Indeed, I’ve challenged some of SEIU’s ideas when I felt they were the wrong fit for Hamline or for higher education. But amid the forces at play in higher education today, being unionized is your best chance to become a full partner in shaping the campus ecology at St. Kate’s. Yes, a union will preserve and strengthen your own economic position and benefits, but more importantly it does so for the generations of adjuncts who will come after you, and most importantly it positions you to model active engaged social justice at Kate’s. And that strengthen the entire university, both academically and culturally.

I hope you vote YES. There is exciting work to do in higher education in the Twin Cities, and I’ll be glad to be a partner in doing that work with you.

Collegially yours,

David Weiss

Steward, Hamline University Adjunct Faculty union

 

Eight Minutes of Friendship

Eight Minutes of Friendship

David R. Weiss – May 9, 2017

I met Sue in 2014 when she was already 80 years old. The first time I delivered groceries to her in her apartment in a subsidized senior hi-rise she commented about an article in the latest issue of The Nation. I was hooked.

Over the next two years I delivered her groceries once or twice a month. We soon discovered we both followed politics, both supported unions (in fact, we’d both worked to organize unions although in quite different eras), both felt passion for social justice, both had idiosyncratic but deep spiritual leanings. We both wrote poetry and essays, and eventually we traded a few of our pieces back and forth.

That’s how came to know each other … about eight minutes at a time. Which was about how long it took me to unload her groceries, help her put the cold items away, and settle up the bill. I suspect we did that thirty-some times over the next two years, until last July when my route was changed.

The last time I saw Sue was at an adult forum I presented at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Sexual Ethics in September 2016. She lived in the Trinity apartments right next to the church and so had made Holy Trinity her church home as well. She was moving slowly but beaming from the back of the room that day.

Afterwards she sent me a handwritten thank you for my presentation and a copy of her latest writing: an essay in which she argued against using third-person plural pronouns (they/them) as gender-neutral singular pronouns (either for God or for individual persons). Such a move violated her profound sense of language, where aesthetics and grammar blend seamlessly. Instead, she posed her own set of gender-neutral pronouns.

Motivated in part by the memory of a high school friend who committed suicide some six decades earlier because of anguish over a mismatch in gender, here was Sue at 82 still stretching her mind to stretch the English language to stretch our world in the direction of justice. Her mind was as exacting as her heart was generous as her spirit was deep.

She died Friday morning following complications from a cancer surgery. Roberta, a close friend of Sue who happened to know me as well, notified me of Sue’s death. When she was helping the family sort through Sue’s apartment she found an envelope where Sue had collected all the various writings I had shared with her. And the list of relatives and longtime friends scattered far and wide who should be notified on her death. My name was on that list.

I wept as I read Roberta’s message. Less for grief at Sue’s passing than for grace. Mostly, we have NO IDEA the lives we touch. Sure, sometimes we sense it indistinctly, but truly we don’t fully reckon the grace that escapes us when we’re not looking. When we’re simply being. Present. And somehow God settles into those gaps of real presence between us and weaves silken threads strong enough to anchor the cosmos.

Tomorrow I expect I’ll have just enough time after I clock out from my Tuesday deliveries to make it to Sue’s memorial service. I’ll still be wearing my work uniform, making one last delivery: this time bringing my final respects.

I understand we’ll be singing one of Sue’s poems set to a familiar hymn tune. I’ll do my best to sing along, but—even though we only ever shared eight minutes of friendship—I expect I’ll be bawling with emotion. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

The Outing of Ellen – 20th Anniversary

NOTE: Written 20 years ago, this was my first foray into “public theology”—actually written as an “audition” column when I applied to become a regular columnist for the Observer, the Notre Dame student newspaper. I wrote a bi-weekly column for the Observer in 1997-98, my last year in graduate year. Besides being immensely rewarding, the joy of this type of writing altogether reshaped my sense of vocation. Thanks, Ellen!

“The outing of Ellen: why all the fuss?”
David R. Weiss, April 30, 1997

Just a few hours from now the seismic culture counters will go haywire as the first lead character in a prime-time TV series comes out of the closet in homes all across America. Needless to say, there’s been a bit of a fuss made over this. Some folks plan to boycott the show, the advertisers, even the station; at least one ABC affiliate has declined to air the episode. Many who have welcomed Ellen into their living room quite readily over the past few years will now feel compelled to turn off this woman whose no longer hidden life so turns them off. Others hail this episode as a liberating event, and not just for gays and lesbians. There are plans to celebrate with “Ellen” parties, champagne toasts, and doubtless much more.

I must confess I’m not an Ellen devotee. I have seen an episode or two, but I was never captivated by the subtle charm of the show; and, judging from its relatively mediocre ratings, neither have many others. So, why all the fuss? Is there really something so significant in a somewhat nerdy, somewhat funny, but all in all rather ordinary woman declaring herself lesbian on national TV? I say, yes, precisely because of that last sentence.

Most of us, myself included, have been raised with rather demonized notions of homosexuals. Perverts, queers, effeminate, butch, dyke, intrinsically disordered–and a host of other appellations that would be starred out in this newspaper. They’re the sort of folks that send shivers up your spine and make your stomach feel queasy. Like the recent photo in the South Bend Tribune of a cow with two faces emerging side by side from the same head. Homosexuals are NOT normal.

Please let us believe that.

If you want to put a lesbian on prime-time TV, at least make her butch, put her on a bike (preferably a Harley), and dress her in leather and chains. But don’t suggest that being lesbian (or gay) is so . . . almost boringly normal. I mean, Ellen, aside from whatever she does between the sheets (or in her own imagination) seems just too much like me to write off as “intrinsically disordered” or “unnatural.” Her days, her life, are filled with all the same foibles that mark my own. The jams she gets herself into are not all that different from the corners I’ve painted myself into from time to time. And the simple fact that most viewers have seemed not to notice her (until now) is also a bit like my own experience in the world.

So maybe, just maybe, the fuss over Ellen’s outing is driven less by the fact that she’s lesbian than by the concern that she isn’t “lesbian” enough to reinforce our own stereotypes of how different and revolting lesbians ought to appear. Maybe there’s something in Ellen’s ordinariness that calls into question—and at a level hard to defend against—the familiar labels that have always worked to keep homosexuals in their place in our minds.

I may or may not watch Ellen tonight. I imagine I’ll jump on the cultural bandwagon—although I’ll watch it on tape after bedtime stories with my son are over (not that he wouldn’t be allowed to watch it himself, but right now he’s far more taken with the adventures of our current bedtime tale, “Maniac Magee,” than Ellen). But I don’t expect any big surprises myself. Homosexuals became human for me sometime ago. Maybe it was Dale’s wry humor; or Dick’s ability to imitate Kermit the Frog (or his inability to laugh in any other way than like a Canadian goose); or Kathi’s uncommon passion for poetry and literature; or Ken’s inability to leave the soap bar somewhere so that the shower spray didn’t melt it away. In any case, I’ve had too many gay and lesbian friends who have been at once so uniquely and ordinarily human that my capacity to consider their sex lives “intrinsically disordered” withered a long time back.

Sure, some folks will respond by saying that I’m confusing apples with oranges, sinners with sins. That you can’t argue from the ordinariness of the rest of their lives to justify their sexual desires and actions. Fair enough. But, at the very least, that ordinariness humanizes them. It suggests that they deserve neither our demonized fears nor our patronizing pity: they deserve our company, our respect, and our ears to hear from them who they are. That’s a conversation yet to happen on much of this campus and throughout much of this country. If a somewhat nerdy, somewhat funny, lead character on a prime time TV show nudges us in that direction, well, then I’ll tune in for that. The Spirit blows where the Spirit wills; Ellen wouldn’t be the first woman of questionable cultural standing to become part of God’s divine whimsy. And I don’t imagine she’ll be the last. Happy viewing!

*       *       *
David R. Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2013; www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”

Keeping Homegrown Worker Justice Legal in Minnesota

Keeping Homegrown Worker Justice Legal in Minnesota

David R. Weiss, February 6, 2017

Last year, in response to years of unsuccessful efforts to address issues of worker uptakejustice at the state level, local communities moved forward on their own. A coalition of labor, faith, and community groups, along with more than a handful of business owners pushed hard in both Minneapolis and Saint Paul, leading to local ordinances that mandate earned sick and safe time for employees in these cities. The process was arduous and there were inevitable yet disappointing compromises along the way. Still, in both cities workers saw at least some justice coming just around the corner (both ordinance would go into effect beginning July 1, 2017).

But early in this legislative session bills were introduced in both the House and Senate that seek to “preempt” any local mandates that try to raise wages or benefits above state minimums. The bills (House File 600 and Senate File 580) reflect ALEC’s (American Legislative Exchange Council) conservative anti-worker agenda (and ALEC’s wording) and are being driven by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, other large business lobbyists, and a handful of vocal small business owners. They would not only ban laws like those passed in the Twin Cities, they would even undo the ones passed in 2016 by being retroactive to the start of last year. You can find a local new story about the bill here.

So the same groups that organized last year to push for local justice in the Twin Cities have come together again at the Capitol to speak truth to those in power. It is an oddly fulfilling and frustrating task. I testified at both a House committee hearing last Thursday and a Senate committee hearing today. Both times the galleries were packed — 300+ citizens in attendance, with voices opposed and bodies opposed outnumbering the bill supporters several times over. And both times the respective committee vote ran exactly along party line, moving the bills forward in each body. It seems certain that Governor Dayton will veto the bill even if it passes in floor votes in the House and Senate. But it remains a bit sobering to hear the impassioned calls for justice (and even for commonsense) that simply fall away when the votes are taken.

In any case, I testified at both hearings.

This was my testimony on Thursday in front of the House Jobs Committee. I had three minutes to speak.

(NOTE: you can see my testimony in this committee at the 46:30 mark in this video. It’s in the third hour of the hearing; this is part 2 of the videotape; I can’y imagine you want to see the whole thing, but if you do, part 1 is this video.)

My name is David Weiss. I’m Lutheran and I’m here with ISAIAH. Like many Minnesotans, I work several part-time jobs. And every penny counts.

For one job I deliver groceries in the Metro area. Last year, on the rare day I called in sick I lost $100 in wages. For me, that’s $100 of food, utilities, car repairs. It cost me dearly to call in sick. But not just me. I deliver groceries—to senior citizens. Many face their own health challenges. I’m often their main source of groceries. For some, I’m their only source.

Without paid sick time, when I got sick, I either gambled with my bills … or with my health, my clients’ health, and our community’s health. That changed last fall when my employer, a non-profit based in Roseville, added a sick-time benefit for part-time employees. The local initiatives in Minneapolis and Saint Paul helped start that conversation. Last October, when one of my grandchildren gave me Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease, I became the first part-time employee in my workplace to benefit from sick pay, keeping my paycheck whole—and my clients healthy.

Through House File 600 powerful corporate interests hope to keep the bar for worker pay and benefits as low as possible statewide—even blocking local improvements that just passed last year.

But democracy works best at the local level. Social progress almost always begins locally. It’s where human dignity flourishes most, because locally it carries the face of our neighbors. It’s where businesses, sometimes eagerly, sometimes reluctantly, come to see that the claims of social justice are part of the cost of doing business in a just society.

Local governments, from the Twin Cities to Minnesota’s smallest towns, deserve the right to improve the well-being of the workers in their communities. That progress has started. And there are workers in every one of your districts who hope it reaches them soon. House File 600 is an attempt to preempt that justice. Don’t let that happen. Thank you.

Today, I had just 90 seconds (!) to address the Senate Jobs Committee. Here’s what I said:

(Note: you can see my testimony at the 1:09 mark — 1 hour, 9 minute — in this video.)

My name is David Weiss. I’m Lutheran and I’m here with ISAIAH.

Local initiatives matter. I get earned sick time today because my employer recently added that part-time benefit in response to the local initiatives in 2016. So this is personal.

But the bigger issue for me is justice. The racial gaps in Minnesota on household income, home ownership, and poverty are among the worst in the nation. Since the majority of Minnesotans of color live in the Twin Cities, the 2016 initiatives put these “Minnesotans first” … precisely where disparities are worst. In seeking to preempt local initiatives, this bill seeks to preempt social justice.

The plain truth is that the only real “uniformity” this bill maintains is keeping wages and benefits as uniformly low as possible for as long as possible — in a state where our racial disparities are not simply an embarrassing statistic but an obscene injustice to the people of color who call Minnesota home.

Senate File 580 takes aim at the well-being of those who are essential to the well-being of our state — even though they are often the most invisible members of our workforce and the most marginal members of our society.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah, this bill is about grinding the face of the poor.

That is not my Minnesota. I hope it’s not yours either. Thank you for your time.

To my Minnesota readers: Please contact your state representatives and senators and let them now you support the right of local communities to seek worker justice and that you OPPOSE House File 600 and Senate File 580.

This entry was posted on February 10, 2017. 1 Comment

An Open Letter to Minnesota’s ELCA Bishops

NOTE: On Sunday afternoon I emailed this letter to all six of Minnesota’s ELCA bishops, along with a brief introductory note in which I state, “I am deeply concerned that the President is leading us into an era in which he will intentionally escalate xenophobic fear in order to make possible deep and damaging changes to our institutions and to the social fabric of our society. The church cannot be caught flat-footed in this moment. It cannot take a cautious “wait and see” approach. I know the situation regarding the order on refugees and immigrants is dynamic and may change between the time I send and you read this message. Nevertheless, I ask you to take my words to heart and consider together how you will choose to exercise leadership for Minnesota Lutherans in which is quickly becoming a national crisis of civility and Christian conscience. I believe that some statement of public witness that includes both a clear pronouncement that the administration’s intended treatment of refugees and immigrants is unequivocally unchristian—and a clear pronouncement that you WILL lead your church into direct confrontation with an administration if it tries to compel your members to betray their faith for sake of country—is essential.”

 

An Open Letter to Minnesota’s ELCA Bishops

On this Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 29, 2017
“What does the LORD require of you, except this, that you do justice,
that you show mercy, and that you walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

Dear friends in Christ,

As I write these words, Muslims, immigrants, and especially refugees, tremble in fear.

While the President has done many things in his first week in office that Christians might take issue with, his executive order this past Friday banning refugees along with immigrants from certain countries is jarring in its immediacy.

As Lutherans we affirm with evangelical zeal that God’s work happens through our hands. Here in Minnesota we Lutherans have set the standard for using our hands to provide human hospitality and institutional resources of welcome to the immigrant and refugee communities that make Minnesota their home. Even as we struggle (with little success) to deepen the diversity in our congregations, we have at least continued to excel in our active witness of welcome to immigrants and refugees.

But the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service calls the President’s recent order “a drastic contradiction of what it means to be an American” in that it “completely disregards the values on which our country was founded.” In fact, the LIRS, hardly a voice on the leftwing fringe, goes so far as to name this executive order “reprehensible.” (lirs.org, January 27, 2017)

More than this, for Christians, it is unconscionable. It asks us to violate our conscience.

The witness of our Hebrew forebears is unequivocal: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

The declaration of Jesus is equally clear: “I was a stranger and you welcomed (or did not) welcome me … just as you did it (or did not do it) to the least of these.” (Matthew 25: 35, 40, 43, 45)

And the pledges we make in baptism reveal the stark death-to-life transformation that sits at the heart of our faith. “I renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God. I renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God. And I renounce the ways of sin that draw me from God.” (ELW, p. 229, Holy Baptism)

Thus, to be ordered to participate in the detention and/or deportation of refugees or lawful “aliens” (the word used in both the President’s order and the biblical text) will place Christians who work in U.S. Immigration, Homeland Security, or other agencies directed to execute this order, in a position that requires them to contradict their faith. To borrow the powerful image from Shusaku Endo’s Silence, they will be forced to trample on the face of Christ.

We—all of us—are ever tempted to be moderate in our response to evil. We prefer to wait and see. We’d rather defer to the courts (whose current stay is only temporary and in no way removes the contradiction to personal faith). We hope for the best. We’re content to pray.

However, in this moment, on this Sunday as we hear both the words of Micah and the Beatitudes, it seems critical to hear also the pained words of Martin Niemöller, penned not in a flight of heroic wisdom, but with regret for not having acted boldly … in the first moment.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

We each have a responsibility in this moment. And lest it become the first moment in a litany like Niemöller’s it is essential that we respond fully. And now. Because you are leaders, your foremost responsibility is to lead. I invite … encourage … implore you to lead in this moment in this way.

Confer with each other and then declare, publicly and in unison:

  • that President Trump’s executive order suspending the arrival of refugees, limiting the free movement of lawful aliens, and directing the detention and possible deportation of these persons is contrary to Christian faith;
  • that, as Lutherans we understand the promises we make in baptism to be both lifelong and communal;
  • and that therefore, in the state of Minnesota, any Lutheran whose job compels them to participate in this blatantly unchristian task—and who refuses to comply—these persons will have the full legal, financial, and spiritual support of Minnesota’s six ELCA synods.

(There are many more actions to which we may be called, some of which may ultimately be more useful and strategic. But the integrity of our baptismal pledges—and the authenticity of our pastoral-prophetic posture requires at least this much. And swiftly. Similarly, I’d be delighted to see such a declaration spread across the ELCA nationally and across other denominations as well. But it makes sense—perhaps it is the Spirit’s leading from our particular past into our present—that it begin here in Minnesota. On Monday.)

May the unrest you feel in your souls lead you to prayerful discernment, to courageous leadership, and to holy witness for the upbuilding of Christ’s church.

Yours in Christ,
David Robert Weiss
Saint Paul, MN

cc:
Bishop Thomas Aitken, Northeast Minnesota Synod, ELCA, thomas.aitken@nemnsynod.org
Bishop Jon Anderson, Southwest Minnesota Synod, ELCA, jon.anderson@swmnelca.org
Bishop Steven Delzer, Southeast Minnesota Synod, ELCA, delzer@semnsynod.org
Bishop Patricia Lull, Saint Paul Area Synod, ELCA, patricia.lull@spas-elca.org
Bishop Ann Svennungsen, Minneapolis Area Synod, ELCA, a.svennungsen@mpls-synod.org
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe, Northwest Minnesota Synod, ELCA, wohlrabe@cord.edu

Thank you, Sue Wolfe.

Thank you, Sue Wolfe. A fond remembrance of the woman who told me to shut up.
By David R. Weiss – December 16, 2016

Yesterday morning Sue Wolfe died. Just one month after a precipitous encounter with cancer. She was just 61. The ache in my heart is not grief—that belongs to those closer to her in recent years. My ache is for the debt of gratitude I still owe her and that I’ll spend the rest of my life repaying.

I met Sue in 1982 during my first year at Wartburg Seminary. Sue was three years sue-wolfe-youngahead of me. I don’t recall exactly how we met—friendships across classes several years apart didn’t happen easily. But Sue took me under her wing, and to a wide-eyed first year student hers seemed like a mighty wing indeed. She could be bombastic for God. For justice. For gospel. I feared her about as much as I admired her—which was a lot.

I say without reservation—this is my testimony—that no professor, no other classmate so profoundly shaped my theological education or my vocation as did Sue Wolfe. Because she told me, with searing grace, “David you have to shut the fuck up.” Some of us need our gospel spelled out with four-letter words. In 1982 that was me.

I was far from a college activist, but I arrived at Wartburg Seminary holding liberal ideals … as I sat in my intellectual armchair, from where I safely engaged, dissected, and rearranged my world.

In the second semester (so Sue and I had maybe six months of trust built between us) we were both in a short seminar on “Men and Women in Church and Society.” It’s possible Sue had encouraged me to sign up for it. Here’s how I described my own “burning bush” moment in a piece I wrote in 1999:

At some point I opened my mouth in this class of mostly 2nd and 4th year students, and shared some (in retrospect) inane thoughts about how “in favor” of women I was and so on, utterly oblivious to the rising rage in the room. It was one of my closest friends, a 4th year student, Sue Wolfe, who exploded first. All fall Sue had taken me under her wing. Now this woman, to whom I would’ve gladly entrusted my life, rose up (she was small in neither stature nor presence) like a divine mother bear protecting her cubs (Hosea 13:8), and said to me, “David, what the hell do you know about our pain and our struggle? Do you think we give a damn about your warm fuzzy pro-women sentiments? You don’t walk into a class like this and talk, you sit down, you shut the fuck up, and you listen.” I stopped just short of soiling myself … and I did keep quiet and just listen.

For a long time.

Eventually, I became a feminist … after listening. I became an ardent ally for LGBTQ persons … after listening. I became a supporter of Black Lives Matter … after listening. I spent the rest of my theological education—two more years at Wartburg and six years of graduate study at Notre Dame—measuring the voices in the canon by listening to voices at the edges. In large part thanks to Sue Wolfe.

Sue and I didn’t stay in frequent contact after seminary, but years later, when she heard I’d left a violent marriage—with my emotions and finances both exhausted—she was the first person who reached out to me, with generous words and a generous check. We last saw each other in 2009 at the ELCA Assembly when we toasted the church’s decision to honor the wideness of God’s welcome to LGBTQ persons. She was one of the very first to buy my children’s book, When God Was a Little Girl, when it came out. Three copies for the three children in her parish. Her message to me at the time (December 2013) concluded, “You know, I have always been a fan of your work!” Well, at least after I learned to shut up and listen.

More than any other person, Sue’s fierce love for me—and for my hearing—brought me face to face, life to life, with the persons and places where gospel happens. Not always, but sometimes “Shut the fuck up” is the first word the gospel utters. And it was my good fortune that Sue Wolfe spoke such gospel to me. Godspeed, Sue. I’m still listening.sue-wolfe

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David R. Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2013; www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”

This entry was posted on December 17, 2016. 2 Comments