Integrity of Conscience
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 13, 2016
I have been thinking about all of you this past week. I have been praying and reading and listening all week as we went into this election on Tuesday with tension and division; and as we have come out the other side with a wide mix of emotions and opinions. I have been thinking about all of you. I have been thinking about my questions “What does the world need? What does our country need? What do you need in this moment of history?” I have slowly worked the questions inside out so I am now asking “what is needed of me in this moment of history?”
I have heard many people speak of their feelings of despair or anger or heartbreak. On Wednesday evening over 50 people attended the prayer vigil here in our sanctuary. I moved through that Wednesday as if I had lead weights on my brain. I wanted to take the day off, to curl up and not deal with life for a little while. And yet my conscience spurred me to act anyway.
My conscience spurs me still to speak out and to offer comfort and encouragement. Our faith is meant for times such as these – we are here to nourish each soul, to help heal the world, to bind up the broken, protect freedom, and cast a vision of Beloved Community for the world. Our faith is meant for times such as these.
And to be clear, my difficulty this week is not about Republicans. I have a colleague who serves two small, rural UU congregations; one is devastated by the election results, the other, overjoyed. I carry that colleague in my heart this morning. So don’t assume there are no Republicans among us or no people who voted for Trump in our pews.
It is true, however, that Unitarian Universalism has become a less and less welcoming home for political conservatives; and part of that is a problem in Unitarian Universalism and part of that is a change is conservative politics. Republicans used to be the party of state’s rights and fiscal responsibility. They now seem to be the party of denying rights to marginalized people, which is an odd direction for an American political party. I hope this election cycle serves as a wakeup call and a turning point not just for the Republican party but for our whole political system.
This election cycle has been extreme and rancorous. Many have commented on how this cycle has been more divisive and more personal for the majority of voting Americans. The call to come together again, as happens every four to eight years after election day, is increasingly difficult to pull off. Our current president and the president-elect have called for unity, for healing. And perhaps if words did not matter, it might be easier to do that – so many difficult things have been said in carelessness or in anger.
And now people have taken to the streets in protest. There have been post-election protests before; there have been cries of “not-my-president” before. Many conservatives protested the Obama 2008 election and many liberals protested the Bush 2000 election. In both cases, there were people who steadfastly refused to concede, refused to accept the results. In a way, post-election protests have become part of the American routine.
But there is something new in this election experience; we have ratcheted things up several steps. When people protested our current president Barack Obama, they protested that he was going to take away our guns, that he was secretly a Muslim, that he wasn’t really born in America, and that he was planning to destroy our country as part of the Weather Underground. All of these claims were unfounded conspiracy theories and over the past 8 years have all proven incorrect.
One the other hand, as my colleague Rev. Heather Janules has pointed out, when people protest our current president-elect Donald Trump, they protest that he has said he plans to ban Muslims from entering the United States, that he has described Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, that he has encouraged violence against protesters at his rallies and against Hillary Clinton herself, that he degrades women frequently and is heard in a recording to brag about sexually assaulting women, and that he has pending lawsuits for fraud. Each claim is a credible complaint, founded on Donald Trump’s own words and statements. These are not conspiracy theories. (I thank Rev. Heather Janules for her work in compiling these footnoted sources.)
I cannot pretend there is an equivalency between the 2008 post-election Obama protests and those occurring this past week against a Trump presidency. I cannot say ‘we’ve seen all this before and we will be ok’ when a portion of the protest is rooted in the response to threats of violence against people on the margin (or people re-marginalized).
I have seen the news stories and the social media posts this past week about Muslims being threatened, children with Hispanic last names being bullied, women being grabbed at gas stations, people of color being harassed verbally and physically. The thread across these disparate stories is about white men feeling entitled by the election of Donald Trump to act out their racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic feelings.
I understand that not everyone who voted for Donald Trump is a racist. Many people voted for Obama twice and have now voted for Trump. They did not vote in approval of the misogyny, homophobia, racism, and xenophobia – they voted as anti-establishment, interested more in economics rather than identity issues, wanting something deeply different. And yet that is how systemic hate happens. Hate has won a victory in our country. Hate has begun a new chapter in the history of our country.
And so I say again, our faith is meant for times such as these. So I say proudly that I am standing on the side of love. And while I long to ring out the slogan that ‘Love is stronger than hate,’ and ‘love always wins;’ I feel a twinge of challenge at that. I am too much of a realist to simply say ‘peace, peace,’ where there is no peace. Sometimes love does not win. Last week hate won a victory in our country. Love does not always win; at least not on the day to day level. Yes the long arc bends toward justice, but until then love does not always win.
Sometimes the hard thing to do is to declare justice as the central identity of our nation despite the evidence; to stand on the side of love not when it wins but even when love loses. Our faith is meant for times such as these.
Gandhi has written:
A principle is a principle, and in no case can it be watered down because of our incapacity to life in practice. We have to strive to achieve it, and the striving should be conscious, deliberate, and hard.
Even in bitter defeat, I am committed to love.
Our Unitarian Universalist theology and covenant call us into a difficult place. We are called to reach out across even these acrimonious differences, to resist the urge to demonize those who have been political adversaries, to treat all people with respect, to do our part to heal the wounds of our day and bring more peace.
And we are also called to challenge hate. Our Unitarian Universalist theology and covenant call us to take the side of the poor, the marginalized, the disempowered, and those treated with injustice and cruelty. We are called to get in the way of systemic injustice, to stand up against tyranny, to agitate the establishment for change so that all people can heal from the wounds of our days and we can all experience more peace.
The way forward from this election season is a paradoxical path that is the hallmark of our faith. We must act with both open-handed reconciliation as well as steadfastly dissent. Gentle and resolute – I will not harm you, but neither will I stand by if you harm or threaten to harm others.
When you are ready, when you are finished the grieving or gloating, the anger or despair or outrage your broken heart demands of you – when you are ready, this is what I will invite you into: to share in the work of rebuilding our country through both open-handed reconciliation and steadfast dissent.
First, here is what I mean by reconciling. We value every person; it is the first thing we say as Unitarian Universalists. We say every person without exception has inherent worth and dignity. Every person is loved by God, every person is included in the family, every person is welcome. As such we shall move into the weeks and months ahead offering respect to the people who have been political adversaries.
We will give people the benefit of the doubt. We will not assume that how someone voted means they are racist or stupid or that they have no common ground with our UU values. Instead, we will give people the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps there is more to their story.
I have already heard some of my friends say anyone who voted for Trump is a racist or anyone who voted for Clinton is willfully blinded by the establishment lies. I say maybe, maybe not. Name calling and demonizing will only keep up fractured. I am not ready to write off whole categories of people like that. Let’s have a conversation instead. Let’s see what common ground we can find before jumping to conclusions.
I read an article yesterday by a Jesuit named James Martin advocating for giving people the benefit of the doubt. Martin writes,
Many of our brothers and sisters are frightened by the election of someone who said, both in public and in private, hateful comments. But the only path to reconciliation, as Jesus shows us, is meeting someone who seems like your enemy with charity.
We need to learn to listen past our assumptions of others. Isn’t that one of our great values as Unitarian Universalists? How significant is the bubble you live in? How often is your perspective positively challenged?
American media and internet media in particular is no longer broadcasting – it is narrowcasting. We are often living in a bubble contrived of news that keeps each of us shielded from other perspectives and opinions. We have to actively seek out alternative news and media. Not that this is new, but it has gotten harder especially in this election cycle. So seek out the perspective of a political adversary. Or going forward, listen for the bridge builders, listen for how we can better understand others.
Now the companion stance to this work of reconciliation is a steadfast dissent. They go together, one hand open and one hand closed. James Martin says in the same article a quoted a minute ago,
Now that the election is over, Mr. Trump’s policies are a legitimate target for critique by the church. Before an election such a harsh critique would have been seen as “endorsing,” which the church should not do. Now, however, as has always been the case in the political sphere, the church and its members, may offer legitimate critique about political leaders. http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/pro-unity-and-pro-voice
So we will speak up for the poor, for the marginalized and threatened. We can be open-handed and generous in striving to reconcile – and at the same time we can say acts of violence against minorities and immigrants and women and indeed any person will not be tolerated. And we will name hate crimes and racism as such without reducing it to name-calling and demonizing.
I will wear my Black Lives Matter button in public. I will show up at Standing Rock, ND. I will encourage attendance at the Million Woman March at DC in January. If the ban of Muslims comes, I will stand in opposition. And if Muslims are ever required to register then I will talk to my friends at the Islamic Organization of the Southern Tier about my plan to register as a Muslim. Solidarity and support will become my watchwords for American Indians, for LGBT people, for women, for people of color, for immigrants, for anyone threatened by the hate which has infiltrated the conservative politics of our national family.
Remembering what Dr. King said
What we need to realize it that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.
I will strive for reconciliation. I will speak with compassion and civility to those who were on the other side of our political divide. I ask you all here to join me in this effort to understand, to listen, to give the benefit of the doubt. I say this knowing it is not an easy thing to ask of some of you at this moment. When you are ready, I hope you will join me. But love without power is anemic. Therefore we will be not only compassionate we will also be firmly against injustice.
I have considerable confidence that many of you are now ready to join me in the second part – the pledge of solidarity with all who feel threatened by the hate-filled responses that are occurring. I gently suggest you should not do so lightly, perhaps wait until you can do so with compassion and civility for all the people – those you would protect and those you would oppose. For power without love is reckless at best. What our world needs is not people of defiance, but people of faith. And our Unitarian Universalist faith is meant for times such as these.
There is a movement that has arisen to have allies wear a safety pin. A Safety pin on my shirt is meant to be a signal to those who feel targeted: “You Are Safe with Me.” It is a signal that I will serve to protect, I will support you, you are not alone.
Our Rainbow Alliance is has a bunch of safety pins to share. They are also planning to bring a professional in to offer training in the art of de-escalation. Wearing the safety pin is not meant merely as a symbolic gesture of solidarity. It is meant as a statement of tangible support. There is a real potential for risk in this – do not wear it lightly. Wear it as both love and power, as both reconciliation and dissent.
It is my hope that our congregation can be a safe space for people. But more than that, I will strive to make it a brave space. I will do what I can for all people who come here to recognize that they can take a risk, they can step forward, they can answer the call of love, to live in the world with an open-handed gesture of reconciliation and with a steely resolve of dissent.
Where will you be in all of this? What do you need? And what is needed of you? It comes down to the integrity of your conscience. What does your conscience call you to do at this moment in history? What will an act of integrity be for you? And don’t assume yours will look like mine or anyone else’s here.
As for me, when hate appears, I also will appear. I may not change the outcome of a situation. I may not be effective or heroic. I may simply end up on the losing side, but I will be there with compassion and civility, determination and resolve. I will be there with you. I will be there with love. That is where my faith calls me to be.
In a world without end,
May it be so.