Universalism and Economic Justice

By Eric Stetson — October 8, 2017

(Note: This is the text of a sermon preached at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Highlands in Meadowview, Virginia.)

Good morning. We are gathered here today in a progressive, forward-thinking church — a Unitarian Universalist church. It is a church that adheres to a tradition of building a better civilization — a tradition that has inspired great social movements such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights for African Americans, and equal rights for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

Throughout our history, Unitarian Universalists have believed in creating a world in which all people feel loved and included. That is the spirit of our Universalist heritage. Universalism emerged from a Christian movement teaching that God loves all people unconditionally, regardless of their religious affiliation or their weaknesses and flaws. All people, if given enough of a chance, in the fullness of time, can be redeemed by the power of all-embracing love and are destined for salvation.

Among the Unitarian Universalist principles, we believe in “The inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” These phrases are incredibly meaningful and powerful. They apply to every aspect of life. And as Unitarian Universalists, it is our sacred responsibility to explore their implications, manifest these principles in our own lives, and work to manifest them in our communities and the world at large.

Unitarian Universalists often focus on some important aspects of human worth and dignity, justice, equity and compassion in human relations — aspects such as racial justice and gender equality — but less often do we contemplate, discuss, and fight for economic justice and an egalitarian economy. The economic aspects are just as important — because our economic relationships are at the core of who we are as human beings and what kind of society we live in. A society that makes life miserable for some people because they don’t have enough money is just as morally depraved as a society that discriminates against people based on their sex or the color of their skin.

Why do I say that? Isn’t making money something that everyone has the opportunity to do, and isn’t it true that if people don’t have enough money, it’s probably their own fault? In contrast, people are born black or female or gay, and if they face discrimination, there’s nothing they can do to change those attributes of themselves. Therefore, as the argument goes, we should fight for equality on the basis of race or gender or sexual orientation, but if people want economic equality, they are entirely responsible to pursue that for themselves through the toil of their own labor.

Well, that’s a commonly held belief, and it’s true that to some degree, able-bodied people are responsible for their own economic wellbeing. But in the bigger picture, how much power do individual people really have over their own economic status and potential? To what degree should we all care about the plight of the poor, and seek to order the affairs of society to prevent or eliminate poverty? Is this something that would just be a nice thing to do, or is it a moral imperative?

Consider this: We’re living in a world where over 2 billion people are living on less than $2 a day. It’s not because they don’t work hard enough or because they aren’t enterprising enough. It’s because the world’s resources are unequally distributed, in large part due to geographical and historical accidents, such as which lands have an abundance of oil and rare minerals or which societies were able to defeat and subjugate others through war and colonization.

Meanwhile, according to a recent study by Oxfam, only 62 people own more than half the wealth in the entire world. This, while billions of people have so little access to money that they can barely survive. Gross economic inequality tends to be perpetuated from generation to generation — through the inheritance of either wealth or poverty, opportunity or vulnerability. Only through a combination of significantly above average talent and luck are some individuals able to climb out of the poverty they were born into.

We’re living in a world where over 2 billion people are living on less than $2 a day. … Meanwhile, according to a recent study by Oxfam, only 62 people own more than half the wealth in the entire world.

The great spiritual teachers of history have taught that we have a moral responsibility to help those who are economically less fortunate than ourselves. For example, when a rich young man comes to Jesus, asking what he must do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus tells him that it’s not enough that he keep the Commandments; he must also give away his riches to the poor. The wealthy man goes away in disappointment, unwilling to part with his tremendous economic resources to assist those in need. Jesus then tells his disciples that it’s harder for a rich person to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle!

The Buddha started his life as a rich young man named Siddhartha who inherited tremendous wealth — he was in fact the heir to the throne of a great and prosperous kingdom in India — but upon seeing the terrible plight of the poor, he decided to give away his riches and pursue a “middle path” between material wealth and asceticism. Siddhartha achieved enlightenment and became known as Buddha, the “awakened one.” It all started with his awakening to the moral offense of extreme economic inequality and his moral duty to live in a way that does not perpetuate it.

The Prophet Muhammad also taught the importance of being charitable towards the poor. He regarded it as so important, in fact, that he asked his followers to give away a tithe called Zakat on a regular basis, specifically for helping the economically less fortunate. Zakat is considered one of the “Five Pillars of Islam” — the five most important teachings and practices in the Islamic faith.

Although these great teachers of the past have counseled moderation in our economic lives through individual acts of charity, as Unitarian Universalists today, I believe we must go beyond merely being charitable individuals and must also strive to correct the economic imbalances in society as a whole. UUs have a great tradition of pursuing the implementation of our principles in social institutions and systems, not only through virtuous personal actions. So let’s consider how we can pursue economic justice and fulfill our principles of universal human worth and dignity and equity and compassion in human relations, as we strive to build a better civilization.

There are three aspects I would like to touch on:

  • First, what is money? And how could money itself be reformed to be more compatible with the principles of Universalism?
  • Second, how can people and companies do business in a way that is socially responsible, upholding economic justice and giving rise to a more fair and compassionate economy?
  • Third, what is the appropriate role of government, to ensure the general welfare and economic wellbeing of the people they serve?

Let’s start with money — the most basic tool or social institution that enables people to trade with each other and maintain economic relationships. Money is a measurement of perceived value. It represents the value of goods, services, and labor, as perceived by the consensus opinion of society about how much everything is worth.

If Unitarian Universalists believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, does that mean that everyone should inherently have enough money to survive? I believe so. There are enough resources available to provide a Universal Basic Income to everyone in the world that would at least ensure that nobody faces the prospect of starvation. The idea of Universal Basic Income has been supported by many great thinkers, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Buckminster Fuller, and Stephen Hawking.

Many people think that providing a basic income for everyone would be impossibly expensive. But when we consider how poor most of the world’s population is, the numbers show it is very possible, not even difficult, in fact, to ensure that all people are provided with a certain minimum amount of money to guarantee their basic survival needs. And believe it or not, it can be done by reforming the institution of money itself, without needing to take from the rich and give to the poor.

To understand how this is possible, we need to understand how money works. Money is no longer backed by gold or some other fixed amount of resources — and it hasn’t been for decades. Money is created every day, out of thin air, by banks in the form of credit. Whenever a bank makes a loan, that bank — a for-profit corporation — is actually creating new money and issuing it into circulation. That’s called fractional reserve banking, and it’s a system that has been responsible for a great deal of economic growth. The problem is, banks create and issue the money supply according to their own private profit motive, which does not necessarily align with the best interests of humanity as a whole.

Stop and think about what this means. We are living in a world in which some institutions have the authority to create and distribute the money supply according to their own discretion, and those institutions are not governments or non-profits; they are private, for-profit entities that are making the decisions about who should have the right to get access to money based on increasing their own shareholder value.

Naturally, banks see it as most profitable to provide capital to the already wealthy, because they are a safe bet to pay back their loans, and they have valuable assets that can be foreclosed on when they don’t. When banks do lend to the poor, they usually charge high interest rates. Sometimes the interest rates are so high that they trap poor people in a never-ending cycle of debt, a peonage which can become like a new form of slavery. In fact, whole nations are enslaved to the international banking system in this way — and thus they have lost their freedom and self-determination for their own destiny and that of their people.

The result of this system is an ever-increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer people and institutions. And it is not optional that we do something to solve this problem; it is essential. If the extreme economic inequality in the world is not mitigated, and the money supply not more equally distributed, we will soon be living in a world in which survival may not even be possible for a large percentage of the world’s population. Some of the brightest scientific minds are telling us that within a few decades, we will approach what is called the “technological singularity” — a time when the capabilities of robots and artificial intelligence will surpass that of human beings. It will be more profitable for corporations to employ only machines to do most of the jobs that need to be done to create economic production — not only the physical labor, but even the mental labor, the good jobs that require high levels of education. When this day comes, the economic system as we know it will collapse.

If the extreme economic inequality in the world is not mitigated … we will soon be living in a world in which survival may not even be possible for a large percentage of the world’s population.

As we approach that day, which is predicted to be coming within one, or at most two generations, it is imperative that we begin to recreate the most basic economic institutions of society. The institution of money is the foundation of it all. How is money created and distributed? Who makes those decisions? According to what criteria do people or organizations gain permission, or agency, to act in the world, through the necessary unit of measurement of power to act and to own that we call money?

Unitarian Universalists can put our principles in practice by supporting a reform of how money works, so that new money will be created and issued into circulation as a guaranteed minimum income for every human being in the world. Money would thus become a tool not only to facilitate trade and commerce, but also to reflect and make manifest the first UU principle: universal human worth and dignity. If you’re interested in supporting this idea, I invite you to support a nonprofit organization I have founded which is working for monetary reform.

Now let’s consider business — the economic relationships that are built on top of the underlying tool of money. When we buy goods and services, do we stop to consider whether the company we’re doing business with is doing business in a way that reflects our Unitarian Universalist principles?

There are many ways that companies can make the economy either more just or unjust, based on their business practices. For example: Do they pay their employees a living wage? Do they even have employees with job security according to the traditional definition of a “job,” or do they try to outsource all their work to low-paid independent contractors who have to constantly scramble to find work from many different organizations? Do they provide their employees with benefits such as health insurance, family and medical leave, vacation time, and a pension for retirement?

If a company is doing these things, it may be worthy of our business. But if it treats its workers like dirt, it is violating our Unitarian Universalist principles and should not receive our money. In a free market economy, in most cases it is possible to buy any kind of goods or services from a company that is compatible with our values of human dignity and compassion, instead of a company that exploits human beings and values gigantic profits for the owners over the wellbeing of ordinary workers. For example, we can look for businesses that are following what’s called the “triple bottom line” — making a profit while doing the right thing for people and the planet. There is even an organization that audits and certifies such companies, which are known as “B corporations.” We the consumers, we the people, have the ability and the freedom to choose which companies we want to encourage to exist, to grow and to thrive, or which ones we want to see decline and go out of business — by voting with our wallets. That’s the power of choice in the free market, and we should use this power to the fullest.

But there are some ways that free choice in the marketplace can’t completely solve the problem of exploitation of people by the economy. In the capitalist system, businesses have to achieve a high enough profit margin in order to raise the capital they need to expand and become dominant in their industry. This is because of the motives of banks to lend money to those that are already making lots of money and are a good credit risk, as mentioned before.

I don’t believe the answer is to switch from capitalism to communism. The communist economic system proved to be a failure. But I do believe society should pass laws and create social institutions to reduce some of the negative effects of capitalism such as its tendency to worsen economic inequality, while protecting the positive benefits of capitalism such as its tendency to create robust economic growth.

Among the ways we can do this is by supporting labor unions, to increase the collective bargaining power of workers, and supporting laws to ensure the right of workers to form unions and the right of unions to bargain with owners of companies.

Another way we can fight for economic justice is to vote for politicians who support universal health care, because if people cannot remain healthy, cannot get the medical care they need, or cannot afford it, they generally fall into poverty — not through any fault of their own.

And we should consider what other positive roles government might play to help reduce poverty and inequality — such as by providing high-quality education for all children, and perhaps even free or subsidized college or trade schools for young adults, to ensure that as many people as possible will have the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in an increasingly competitive global economy; and by providing retirement security for the elderly and economic assistance to the disabled, through a robust, well-funded Social Security system.

The British philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously said that the “life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The ultra-capitalist American philosopher Ayn Rand had a dollar sign carved into her tombstone, representing what she considered to be the one thing worthy of ultimate respect and value. Although free-market economics has been responsible for creating great value in the world, it has also been responsible for much suffering. When people are told that their value is only measured by how much money they have, they tend to see themselves not as human beings, in the full richness of the meaning of humanity, but as something more like machines, trying to make as much money as fast as possible, like robots cranking out widgets on an assembly line. When only the almighty dollar is remembered and the inherent value of human beings as people is forgotten, indeed life for most people tends to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

When people are told that their value is only measured by how much money they have, they tend to see themselves not as human beings, in the full richness of the meaning of humanity, but as something more like machines.

But when we remember that all human beings have value beyond how much money they can generate or accumulate, the horizon of human experience opens wide and we become filled with a love that can create a more just and beautiful world. By seeing people through a more soulful lens, instead of merely on the balance sheet of dollars and cents, we have the power to create a world filled with freedom and opportunity for everyone.

You see, we have the power to create whatever kind of world we want to live in. A world with less fear and anger, less war… fewer terrorists, fewer refugees… better health, more happiness… more hope for a better future. More people going to college, starting businesses, pursuing their dreams. A world that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.

Let’s create an economy backed by our love for each other. Let’s raise the consciousness of our world with the money in our wallets. We have the power! We can create a better world! All it takes is knowledge and commitment to make the change we seek.

The great psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a theory called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. He discovered that human beings must first have their basic survival needs met before they can do anything more beautiful such as love, art, creativity, and transformation of consciousness. How many Einsteins, Mozarts, and Rembrandts have never been given a chance to be who they really are — to shed the light of their gifts upon our world — because they were too poor to pursue their dreams and fulfill their potential?

But we can change that. We can make sure that in the next generation — every child living today — has the opportunity to rise to their fullest potential, to be their greatest self, to create a world filled with beauty and love, with passion and empowerment, an ever-advancing civilization in which every person is not only valued and respected, but cherished. By fighting for economic justice, we can make this dream a reality.

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