Scandal in the Sanctuary

As well as my Pagan affiliations, I am also a member of a Unitarian Universalist Congregation.  Recently I let that community know of my blog and my “benevolence fund” process via that community’s list serve.  And, although several other people in the congregation are trying to earn or augment livings via artisanal endeavors,  it appears that my own notification irked some who accused me of trying to “line my pockets” at the congregation’s expense.  I replied that I would, indeed,  be doing so except that my pockets currently have large holes in them – I remain, in my 60’s, “a poor struggling student” as a factual description of my economic reality.

This even though I had made it perfectly clear that I didn’t want anyone to feel at all obliged – that I was simply notifying my community of a venue for people who might share my interests in Paganism, Women’s Spirituality, Druidica, Indigenous Spirituality and other such arcane passions and who might also value my scholarship sufficiently to support it if they so chose.  (From participation in several groups and from several presentations I had given, a number of fellow members had previously inquired about both my teaching and publishing endeavours – when would they be available, because they were eager to obtain my work or to attend my lectures –  always a heartening sign and one reason why I wanted to develop this process into cyberspace).

My blog was, therefore, a place where they could go to find longer writings and where they could donate to my living as a researcher, writer and teacher, if they were inclined to do so.  Because there were other people who had “advertised” via the list serve (knit goods, hand puppets, small wares), I understood at once that, while the issue of “filthy commerce” was indeed a central concern, something about me, personally, had triggered the negative response.  Before exploring what that was, I do want to say that the positive response was overwhelming, many friends at First U wrote to lend support both for my benevolence fund – and for my work as a researcher and writer.  Nevertheless it was clear that I continue to hit nerves, quite unintentionally – and I wanted to think through what was going on.  Hence this and the next few postings.

Actually, there are some things at stake in the kerfuffle. Specifically there are two issues: a) that I have rejected Western modernity.  Given that Unitarianism descends from the Reformation, which launched European, thus Western, modernity – my rejection of that origin is, I think, interpreted as a personal attack on those for whom that heritage is precious – and I will be addressing the Western heritage issue in the next post.   And  –   b) my notification on the list serve was more direct than others who generally phrase their self-employment as a query, wanting to know if anyone would like a knitted garment as a special gift.  That kind of language apparently seems more innocent somehow, although the bottom line is that all of us, in that economic position, are trying to earn or augment our livings through “self employment”,  by what might be termed a focussed localization.  In effect, we are asking that the communities we are part of take notice of our efforts and respond, precisely because they are our local situation. It is not a sly demand, emotionally blackmailing fellow congregants into having to give charity, but an upfront request that they be willing to consider our products because, as neighbours, our economics are bound together, whether this is visible or not.   Yet, in probing as gently as I could, the issue – for more than a few – seems to be that “commerce” should be kept out of “sanctuary”.  But should it?  Implicitly, those who preceded me in listing their wares or services, are saying otherwise: there is something to be said for a “spiritual economics” as a right of the commons.

I have termed the idea of a “clean sanctuary” as the “Haven in a Heartless World” syndrome (based on Christopher Lasch’s famous book of the same name).  The idea that some place should be beyond the reach of monetary concerns, where, even though all of us must have “dirty hands” to some degree, we can all come, be forgiven, cleansed and renewed, and where, to help with that absolution, we can give alms to the poor, enshrining charity as a high expression of love for one’s fellows.

In opposition to the “haven” ideal, with its necessary corollary of charity, is the idea that we can have a true “welfare” economy – an economy in which the commons fares well and in which no one has to have “dirty hands”. So the question is: do we believe that it is possible to have “a clean” economy – or not?

I recently heard of a “better late than never whistle-blower”, a woman who had been a ghost writer for doctors involved in clinical trials of several drugs, including one that caused severe hemorrhaging.  She had two daughters, provided for them well, put them through school and paid off her mortgage – she was an upstanding member of the …. how shall we designate it, community, regime, hegemony?  But she did all that by “softening” what the side effects of the drugs were.  Finally, her dirty hands got the better of her – and she blew the game.  Before or after she had taken care of her own? When did her dirty hands outweigh the harm that was being done?  But at least she finally did do the right thing.

In contrast, perhaps you have heard of The White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia?  Here, the proprietor pays her workers a fair wage – because they are her friends and neighbours.  She lives above her cafe, she is part of the neighbourhood; community is real and really based in an economics as well as an ethics – she uses locally grown food and has helped finance local fair trade suppliers.  When the opportunity came to franchise, she rejected that – knowing that to go “big” would be to lose a vital connection to the local.  Her relationships keep her commerce clean.

There is a recent Catholic initiative to involve parishes in economics – all the way from developing local markets  to developing local manufacture.  Clearly, some are rethinking the relationship between “economics” and “spirituality”.

No sanctuary can be clean in a dirty economy.  But does an economy have to be dirty? – this is perhaps the theological question of our time.  My belief is that our only hope of holiness is to try to deconstruct what now obtains and to reconstruct an economy of neighbours and friends.  Then, our commerce and our transactions will be kept clean by sacred bonds of affection. Charity will have no place because it will not be what we do instead.

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