Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Freely Given

I grew up with the commandment from the Jewish and Christian scriptures[i] saying “though shalt not steal.” The Buddhist Precept says “Do not take that which is not freely given.” I suspect most religions include some sort of admonition against stealing, but recently I’ve been curious- is this a difference that makes a difference? I think it does. When I thought about what stealing meant as a child, I imagined shoplifting, or a bank robber. As an adult I learned about more subtle kinds of stealing, like wage theft, or tax fraud. In our culture we talk about “taking what is rightfully mine” or “what I deserve.” But how do we define what is rightfully mine? In a country where the laws themselves have injustice and racial bias woven into them, just following the law may not be the most ethical position. If we consider the precept “do not take that which is not freely given” we are asked to consider not only whether I need something, or have a right to it, but the wishes of the one from whom I take it.

As a congregation committed to ethical living, I think it’s important to challenge our ethical thinking with new perspectives. I want to offer just 2 examples today of where this might make a difference, but I encourage you to get curious and notice where there is a difference in your daily life and in the news of the world. I suspect you will find many more than 2.

The First example I want to offer today is about how we use Art and Music. Many of you know that I grew up in a family of musicians, so I know first hand that many musicians and artists struggle to make ends meet. There are very few salaried positions in the arts, and very few gigs pay enough money for artists to actually live on.

Since the time of Covid, things have been desperate for many musicians. I have a conductor friend who was one of the lucky ones making sustainable living in music, and had her calendar booked for years out. She posted on Facebook last spring as each one of her contracts was cancelled, and she looked out over a year or more with no discernible source of income. Musicians are a vulnerable population right now.

The internet is full of amazing music just a click away. If you play it on Spotify, or other streaming services, it returns some fraction of a penny to the artist. Some music on YouTube provides artists with a small advertising revenue if it has enough views. Other music is illegally posted and the artists never see a penny. How we compensate musicians for their labor is a big spectrum from “what can I get away with” to “how does the law define stealing” to “what do the artists who created this piece of music need to live.” 
Katie, our gifted pianist
Our worship team has generally made the decision to receive in gratitude the live performance
by Katie each Sunday, or to hire Brin to play for us, rather than playing videos. The UUA has encouraged Worship teams to ask artists directly for permission to use their work. When we used Lang Elliot’s bird sounds last spring, it was after I wrote to him and asked his permission to use it in worship, and purchased his album. I wrote a note to the author of today’s reading through the messaging app on Facebook, and we had a good conversation about how I would use her story, before she gave me permission to read it here today to you all. I was looking for more information about our song of the month, and found on the UUA site this “If you choose to sing his music or show Jim Scott's video in your online worship service, Jim kindly requests that you make a goodwill financial contribution, via PayPal, using the link on his website.” The worship team talked, and decided that playing his video today, and making a donation was a good way to support one UU musician, and by honoring his specific request, to practice only taking that which is freely given.
Singer and multi-instrumentalist Brin

Now let’s take look at the systemic issues in the music industry. There is a long history of people stealing, borrowing, co-opting, or otherwise using the cultural products of artists who may live a life of poverty, despite creating a hit song that makes millions for someone else. There is a history of racial injustice specifically in the American recording industry that really pushes this point of how Secular America defines stealing, and what it would mean to take only what is freely giving.

In “Race & Racism in the United States: An Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic.” Charles Gallaher and Cameron Lippard explain that white owned record companies had a practice of paying artists a flat fee for their songs, instead of paying royalties. “Unfamiliar with U.S. copyright laws, the artists would sign the contract, collect the fees — and lose all ownership rights (hence, future royalties) to the song.” They offer the example of Fred Parris, who wrote the song “In the Still of the Night,” which sold between 10 million and 15 million copies. If he had been offered a standard contract, he might have made $100,000 in royalties. Instead they paid him a flat fee of $783. Ahmet Ertegen, the founder of Atlantic Records, remembers a Columbia Records executive who said their company never paid its black artists royalties.

In R&B, Rhythm and Business: The Political Economy of Black Music, editor Norman Kelley describes a time in the ’50s when this practice was rampant:
“Often catapulted to success from a neighborhood street corner or, like Little Richard, from a bus terminal kitchen where he was washing dishes, black musicians seldom had access to good advice about record contracts, royalty payments, marketing, promotion, or career development. As a result, they were routinely swindled out of their publishing rights and underpaid for record sales.”[ii]

Certainly there are artists who have had their intellectual property stolen, in the traditional sense, but this injustice – where white corporations made millions while the actual songwriters made a few hundred dollars- this was completely legal. It was entirely legal to offer your white artists royalties, and to offer black artists a one time payment withholding the information that it was standard for artists to receive royalties, and that the record company stood to make hundreds of thousands of dollars form the song you recorded.

Now I’d like to shift to a 2nd example – how might we, a faith that “honors the wisdom of the world’s religious” approach those religious ideas, practices, sacred texts, in a way that is respectful, in a way that takes only what is freely given. This can be a little confusing to us, who grew up in a culturally Christian country, because every hotel room has a Gideon’s bible. Christianity is an evangelizing faith, Christians believe they are called to share the good news far and wide: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” - Mark 16:15. I feel like I have clear consent to quote Christian scriptures in worship.

I was taught in UU Sunday School, that when we visit another faith community, we always ask before we take part of their private traditions. The answer is often yes but not always - some communities require a Christian Baptism to participate fully, other Christian traditions require a particular training or status. When I applied to the Spiritual Director training program I warned them that was UU, and still they welcomed me warmly. The teachers and other participants were mostly vowed religious priests and nuns who know something about contemplation and the movements of the spirit that comes from centuries of wisdom and is just not part of what we UUs have to teach. I have been repeatedly moved by their generous inclusion and grateful for the traditions and wisdom they have shared with me, which have changed my life in powerful ways.

But just because those communities of liberal Catholic contemplatives have freely shared their gifts with me, doesn’t mean every tradition is mine to explore. For example, some of the ways UUs use Jewish tradition in worship that feel like microaggressions to Jewish people. This is why as a UU minister you will never hear me lead the Jewish prayers in our worship – if there are Jewish members of our congregation who want to lead the prayers, we are delighted to accept their gift freely given. But if some year our Jewish members don’t want to take a leadership role, or tell us it feels weird or wrong to, for example, light Hanukkah candles in the daytime at our Sunday service, we will respect that too.

This is particularly problematic in our relationship to the spiritual practices and teachings of indigenous traditions. Why? Because peoples of those traditions tell us so. Native traditions do not tend to be evangelizing, they tend to be closely tied to a particular place and a particular community. Some native folks say “you have taken so much from us already, why must you take our private sacred traditions too?” Now of course Indigenous peoples don’t speak with one voice, and there are lots of different opinions about how and with whom culture is shared. So we ask every time “May I?” and we respect the answer.

It occurs to me that the idea of “only taking what is freely given” is a lot like the important dialogue going on in our culture about what does “consent” mean. The organization “Breakthrough” believes fighting for the rights of women and girls begins with changing culture:
“We create ‘consent culture’ when we value the feelings of people we are interacting with either casually or professionally. It’s about respecting each other’s personal and emotional boundaries every time...
“Consent culture goes beyond sex and applies to everyday interactions- from sharing a photo of someone online, to asking before giving a hug. Consent should be voluntary, enthusiastic, sober, verbal, non-coerced, continuous and honest.” [iii]

I think this is a great rubric to understand what is “freely Given” “Voluntary, enthusiastic, sober, verbal, non-coerced, continuous and honest.” That “continuous” – that’s an important point. It means that consent can be taken away. That what was once freely given, may no longer be, so we keep asking. Consent is specific, and we ask each step of the way.

I attended a virtual workshop about ancestor practices with Enroue Halfkenny, and he spoke to us about cultural appropriation. He was very clear when he lead us in a particular practice- this is for your use, he said, this is not for you to teach or share. I could say “I paid to attend that webinar, that’s mine now to use as I want” but that would not be freely given.

This can be disappointing. When someone answers "no" to a request I made, it sometimes feelse terrible;  I felt ashamed, angry, righteous, all the things. If I want something, and I feel like It is reasonable, and someone tells me “no” I have a choice to make.

In 2016 our Coven of UU pagans wrote a statement about their commitment to consent culture:
“Consent culture is a culture in which asking for consent is normalized and encouraged. It is respecting the person's response even if it isn't the response we had hoped for. We will live in a consent culture when we no longer objectify people and we value each other as human beings."[v]
That’s really where the rubber hits the road- “even if the response isn’t the response we hoped for.” I’m not sure what we would have done for worship that Sunday if Lang Elliot hadn’t given us permission to use his bird sounds, or if Jessica Chase had not given us permission to share her daughter's moving story this morning. But that is our challenge as a community dedicated to ethical living, to wrestle with the subtleties of what I can and should take, and what is freely given.

The Buddhist precept “do not take that which is freely given” seems to me to harmonize beautifully with our UU values, and challenges us to stretch ourselves ethically. So I invite you as you go about your week, to notice this spectrum of ethical living- from “what can I get away with taking” to “what is mine by law and by right” to “what is freely given?” I believe that we Unitarian Universalists are called to manifest and grow a culture of consent. To empower one another and even our little children to ask “may I?” and to be willing to listen to the answer even when it is “no” even when it is disappointing to us. And like the wise people at CraigPokesU, may we have the wisdom and the courage to step back graciously when consent is not given, or withdrawn, and may we have the wisdom to accept gratefully all the wonderful gifts that are freely given.

End Notes
[i] I want to note that if you read the wise commentaries of Jewish Scholars on the scripture, they will also give a much more nuanced interpretation of the commandment not to steal[i], so I’m not really comparing the Jewish and Buddhist teachings, but our popular American definition



[v] From <>


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