10 March 2010

Young Adults Online, Part 3: "Justice, Equity, & Compassion": PayPal As A Spiritual Practice

Last week, as part of our series on young adults online, we discussed whether it is possible to abide by the first principle of Unitarian Universalism online---can we be nicer, more ethical social networkers? (That post can be found here.)

This week, and on each of the next five Wednesdays, we'll be examining how to use technology to deepen one's spiritual practice and whether it's possible to live out the seven principles on the web.

Principle II: We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
On Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion

In their book Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat define the word compassion by quoting Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner: "Compassion," Buechner says, "is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you."

This definition acknowledges that compassion, though an instinct and a virtue, can be an uncomfortable thing to feel.  To be aware of someone else's suffering is to know keenly our responsibility to help alleviate that suffering; to come face-to-face with with another person's pain is to be overwhelmed by both the desire to ease that pain and by the possibility that---no matter what we do---easing the pain might be impossible.

Which leads us to realize that, as complicated as compassion can be to feel, it can be an even more overwhelming thing to act upon. It's hard, in the era of globalization, not to be conscious of how much injustice and sorrow exists in the world---how many people are living in, to put it mildly, less than ideal circumstances---and hard to know what we, as individuals, can do to combat it. Abstract terms like poverty and war might intimidate us into thinking some issues are to big to tackle, that the work of social justice is not worth it.

We might wonder whether it's possible to affect positive change in the world without being overwhelmed by how much work there is to do, whether we can apply second principle of Unitarian Universalism---which enjoins us to recognize our basic kinship to other human beings and then and to act accordingly to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to fulfill his or her true potential ---in a way that doesn't make us feel anxious and guilty?

I think we can. The key to doing it, I suspect, might be in the principle's last three words---"in human relations." This phrase brings the fight for justice out of the realm of abstraction and into our lives: it highlights the value of compassionate action in individual relationships and allows us to begin working for justice and equity wherever we are: even online.

Although the internet has a reputation for isolating its users from each other, it has actually changed, drastically, the meaning of community by allowing people to connect with those both like and unlike them and to educate themselves about issues (like this one, or this one) that affect people outside their immediate social circle. This combination of connection and education helps keep human beings from being strangers to each other and encourages them to treat each other with generosity. (For more about how the internet can be---and must be---used to help human beings relate to each other more effectively, visit Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion website.)

If you're interesting in using the internet to help enhance your practice of the second principle, there are a number of unique options available. Two are:

1. MICROFINANCE: Kiva seeks to eliminate poverty by matching entrepreneurs around the world with  lenders willing to support their efforts to start (or grow) a small business. Volunteers furnish "microloans" (via PayPal) in order to help an individual gain financial independence. These are not donations: when the business turns a profit, the loan is repaid. (Grameen America provides microfinance loans for entrepreneurs in the United States.)

2. DISTANCE VOLUNTEERING: If you have an internet connection and a few hours to spare every week, you can work with the United Nations Volunteer Service. No matter what issue you'd prefer to focus on, or in what area of the world---no matter what skills you have---it's possible to help the UN and its affiliated organizations advocate for those who most need it. Want to help gather used clothing and small household goods to be sold at a thrift shop in Ghana the proceeds of which benefit women's education programs? You can! Speak Arabic and want to write articles for a youth-empowerment magazine published in the Middle East? You can!

If you're inclined to donate money to organizations that work for human rights, visit Charity Navigator and Network For Good---both are reputable guides to non-profit giving.

What does the second principle of Unitarian Universalism look like in your life? Have you used the internet as a tool to work for social justice?

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