Sermons 2012-13

Redesigning Racism

Redesigning Racism
Rev. Douglas Taylor
January 20, 2013

 

I went to the movies this month.  The opening scene showed a chain gang of prisoners slaving away under the watchful eye of the guards.  The head guard then calls one prisoner out of line.  (singing)

[JAVERT] 
Now bring me prisoner 24601.
Your time is up and your parole's begun.
You know what that means.

[VALJEAN]
Yes, it means I'm free.

[JAVERT]
No!
It means you get your yellow ticket-of-leave. 
You are a thief.

[VALJEAN]
I stole a loaf of bread.

[JAVERT]   
You robbed a house.

[VALJEAN]   
I broke a window pane.  (And the music swells)
My sister's child was close to death 
and we were starving.

[JAVERT]
You will starve again unless you learn 
the meaning of the law.

[VALJEAN] 
I know the meaning of those 19 years, 
a slave of the law.

The movie is Les Miserables the musical staring Anne Hathaway and several other.  I love this musical, not just for the powerful music but also for the ethical and religious themes with which it works.  Usually when bringing this story up as an example in a sermon I would be talking about redemption and our capacity to change.  Today, however, I want to talk about the way a criminal justice system can be used as a tool of social control.

I’m not enough of a scholar of the history or the French Revolution to know if the portrayal in Les Mis is accurate but the story certainly sets it up as an unjust justice system.  The lead character, Jean Val jean, is sentenced to 5 years for stealing bread and property damage, along with 14 additional years for trying to run when the police came to arrest him.  So, 19 years of forced hard labor for stealing food and resisting arrest. 

But on top of that, and the story really emphasizes this, for the rest of his life, Val jean is plagued by the ex-convict label.  He can’t get decent work, he is kicked out of inns, people do not trust him, he has to report in to every police station regularly.  His whole life is defined by being a convict.  We who watch this story know it is unfair, unjust.  Val jean is a good man but the stigma of being a convict is the only thing the world around him sees. 

All this is a literary backdrop to the real point for us today; the point that our U.S. criminal justice system has become a tool for social control.  In our reading this morning for Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, she made the bold statement, “we have allowed our criminal justice system to create a new racial undercaste.”  Her premise is not just that our criminal justice system in unjust, not just that it is a tool being used to enforce social control rather than justice, not just that it is creating a social class of disposable people in our society, but that all of this is pointedly focused on young black men in our country.  Her premise is that mass incarceration is the new form of racial control that picks up where the old Jim Crow laws and practices left off. 

That’s quite a bold premise, don’t you think?  I suggest you read the book to get a sense of it yourself.  It’s a remarkably easy read given the topic.  The UUA has selected it for its Common Read this year.  And I’ve been surprised to hear how many people have been reading it.  “Oh, yes, I’m reading that book,” people say when I mentioned it as the premise for my sermon.  I have been a little surprised to hear from 19- and 20-year-olds I know telling me about this book, and not just because they were assigned The New Jim Crow for a class.  Our congregation’s Book Group will be using this book for its topic in April, keep an eye out for their invitation to join in the discussion. 

Jim Crow, the original Jim Crow, was a system of laws, customs and practices that effectively trapped African Americans into a second class status that authorized legal discrimination against them.  Despite the triumph of emancipation and the end of slavery in 1863, a new system of legal practices and social norms arose to keep African Americans relegated to second-class status in our society.  The popular narrative that arose reflecting on the Civil Rights efforts of the 1960’s is that we have fought and won against the Jim Crow laws and norms of segregation, and a new day of colorblindness has dawned in our nation.  ‘The issue of race is dead and we are now colorblind,’ this version of the tale tells us. ‘Witness the election of our nation’s first black president.’ 

As a side note, I will echo Michelle Alexander’s warning: the myth of colorblindness and black exceptionalism does not negate the prevalent reality of racism in our country; indeed it only hides it thus allowing it to continue unchallenged.  The new Jim Crow, Alexander contends, is a system of racial and social control that developed to do the same work as the original Jim Crow: laws, customs and practices that authorize legal discrimination against people of color.  This time, it takes the form of mass incarceration.

Let me sketch out how it works as Michelle Alexander tells it in her book.  We begin with the Reagan era War on Drugs. 

We have over 2 million people in prisons and jails in our country today.  As a ratio of incarcerated people to the whole population that is a huge number.  Our ratio is the highest in the world.  We imprison more people at a higher ratio than countries that are considered highly repressive such as Russia, China, and Iran (p6). 

Between 1960 and 1990, for example, official crime rates in Finland, Germany, and the United States were close to identical.  Yet the U.S. incarceration rate quadrupled, the Finnish rate fell by 60%, and the German rate was stable in that period. (p7)

That alone would be enough for us to claim we have a problem.  But notice another startling statistic.  40% of incarcerated people are African American.  Yet African Americans make up only 13% in general population.  We “imprison a larger percentage of [our] black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.  In Washington D.C. … it is estimated that three out of four young black men can expect to serve time in prison.” (p6-7)

Time and again it is noted that the dramatic increase in our prison population has been largely due to the War on Drugs with it’s mandatory sentencing and ‘three strikes your out’ policy.  When I was looking for supporting information online I saw a graph of prison population that grows slowly for a long time, keeping pace with general population growth, and then suddenly in the 80’s it climbs sharply and doesn’t quit.  We went from 300,000 to 2 million in less than 30 years.  Our prisons expanded exponentially because our government chose to see criminal activity in what is more accurately a public health problem. 

A significant majority of the increase in arrests at the start of the War on Drugs was for marijuana.  The cliché that marijuana is a gateway drug is of course a falsehood, except if you see the gateway as the entre into mass incarceration.  Young black men are arrested and tried for possession of marijuana, and they are now on the books with a conviction.   That one conviction can easily turn into a felony and you now have people who are serving 25 years in prison for non-violent crimes like sale and possession of marijuana.  Sure, pot is a gateway drug.  Not into use of harder drugs but into the criminal justice system.  Even if people in this situation never commit a violent crime, they can be plagued all their life.  “Prisoner 24601, your time is up and your parole’s begun, you know what that means?”  “Yes it means I’m free”  “No.”  No, being released from prison does not mean people are free.   Once labeled a drug criminal, they are relegated to second class status permanently.  They will continue to be legally discriminated against in terms of employment and housing, access to education and public assistance, as well as their rights to vote and serve on a jury – rights which are legally removed from them.

But all that, in and of itself, while problematic is not the extent of the problem.  The large scope is that black people are being incarcerated from drug related crime in grossly disproportionate rates from white people.  And it’s not that black people use and sell drugs more and are therefore arrested more.  Decades of studies consistently show that people of color do not use or sell drugs at higher rates than do white people.  White people use and sell drugs just as much, but don’t get arrested or convicted as often. 

There is decades of evidence to show that, despite the myth of colorblindness, there is a huge racial disparity at every level of the system “from initial stop, search, and arrest to plea bargaining and sentencing.” (P 17)  All we get from the myth of colorblindness is that race is ostensibly not a consideration and therefore the courts will not hear an appeal against the criminal justice system on the basis of race.  But the numbers are clear:  it is a fact that African Americans are disproportionately represented in the prison population.  If it’s not due to a commensurate disproportion in crime rates, than to what is it due? 

Or to ask the question another way: What is the purpose of our prisons?  Certainly not to reform.  Our ‘Correctional Facilities’ have not served for decades (if ever) with the intention of ‘correcting’ or reforming those who are incarcerated.  Correction and reform happen and even happen intentionally – but that is not the real point or things would be structured differently. 

I remember conversations I had with a man in prison who was trying very hard to get his life together, trying hard to reform.  I remember saying something about how at least in prison he is forced to go clean from the drugs.  He smiled sadly at my ignorance saying, “There are not many places in our country where it is easier to get drugs than prison.  For the right price I could get my hands on just about any drug I wanted in here.”

I don’t know the ins and outs of prisons but it seems to me that if our ‘correctional facilities’ really wanted to ‘correct’ drug users they would have the means to at least make it hard to obtain drugs in prison.  My point circles back to the question of what prisons are for if they are not for reforming prisoners.

They are not a deterrent to crime – there are a multitude of studies showing that point.  Do they serve the purpose of simply warehousing people our society considers disposable?  Is it to build and maintain a workforce that is more cost-effective than shipping jobs overseas?  Is it the new system of Jim Crow?  The premise of Michelle Alexander’s book is that the system of mass incarceration is the latest form of systemic racism in our long history of systemic racism as a nation.

And here is the insidious trick that I fall into, that I am sure many well-intentioned liberal white people fall into.  My theology, my world view, is dominated by the belief that all people are created equal and that I and every other inherently worthy person can choose actions that are constructive or destructive.  Yes, I make mistakes.  Yes, I can spiral into destructive patterns and choices because of unhealthy things in my life, in my heart, in my spirit.  But ultimately, I am the captain of my life; I am responsible for my lot. 

Further, I would never knowingly participate in discrimination against a person of color.  I work at not being a bystander not just in terms of racism but against bigotry and discrimination and hate in all its varied and ugly forms.  But systemic oppression is a different animal.  Systemic racism has little to do with my personal choices and my capacity to effect my situation. 

Or let me ask it like this: are all of those people in prison for non-violent drug-related felonies caught in the system simply because they made their choices.  You do the crime, you serve the time; you made your bed, not you’ve got to lie in it.  They didn’t “Just say No.”  Think about it for a minute.  I believe my life is in my control, moving according the personal choices I make.  Why would it be any different for a person of color who sold and smokes pot and is not in prison?  This is the trick we liberals tend to fall into. 

Individual choice is not a significant aspect in the big picture, it is about systemic injustice.  Surely the evidence of racially disproportionate arrests and convictions for African Americans is enough to make us pause and consider Michelle Alexander’s critique.  Young black men are in particular are routinely arrested and convicted for a public health issue masquerading as a crime.  They then carry the label and stigma that keeps them relegated to second class status in and out of the actual prison bars for the rest of their lives. “I know the meaning of those 19 years, a slave of the law.”

Alexander calls for a new Civil Rights movement to respond to the new Jim Crow of mass incarceration.  Too many people are not seeing the connection between criminal justice reform and racism.  Any attempt to reform the criminal justice system without an intentional focus on race will be misguided because the primary purpose of the criminal justice system today is not to prevent crime.  If anything, our current system seems better suited to creating more crime. 

Michelle Alexander urges us to question this.  Alexander urges us to connect the dots, to get uncomfortable with the way things are, to stop being colorblind. 

Fifty years ago, James Baldwin wrote:

I can conceive of no Negro native to this country who has not, by the age of puberty, been irreparably scarred by the conditions of his life … The wonder is not that so many are ruined but that so many survive.

He was talking about Jim Crow segregation and the situation and circumstances that led to the 60’s civil rights movement.  But how apt his words still are today.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said “There are some things in our social system to which we ought to be mal adjusted.”

Near the end of her book Michelle Alexander writes:

We have allowed ourselves to be willfully blind to the emergence of a new caste system – a system of social excommunication that has denied millions of African Americans basic human dignity.  The significance of this cannot be overstated, for the failure to acknowledge the humanity and dignity of all persons has lurked at the root of every racial caste system. (p259)

Alexander urges us to connect the dots, to get uncomfortable with the way things are, to stop being colorblind.  She urges us to begin a new movement to end this new Jim Crow.  And if Martin Luther King Jr. was right about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, then a new movement will arise and the next generation will see more justice and freedom then is known today.

In a world without end

May it be so.

 

The Heron and the Despair

The Heron and the Despair
Rev. Douglas Taylor
January 13, 2013

 

In the Qur’an it is written:

Behold!  In the creation of the heavens and the earth;
In the alternation of the Night and the Day …
In the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth …
[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise. (2.164) 

All the world over, in scripture and in poetry through the ages, people proclaim not only how good the earth is and how blessed but also how we can learn from it.  “[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise.”  In various scripture we see reference to the natural world not only as a place to uncover lessons for living, but also as a wilderness that will test us.  Nature is sometimes cast as the place of temptation or a place where we get lost.  Nature is also presented in fairy tales as a dangerous place yet also a place where we must go to grow up.  The mountain top, the desert, the woods and the wilderness each carry a metaphoric or mythic tone that the actual natural locations can truly convey. 

I have always loved nature, and growing up I spent a lot of time out in the woods.  My woods were not dangerous or challenging, however.  My woods were a source of centering and healing. 

I grew up among the glacier carved hills just south of Rochester NY, in a place called Bushnell’s Basin.  Across the street from my house the neighbor’s back yard dropped down several dozen feet to a broad lowland of trees and clearings that we called The Flats. Every spring and fall the Flats would become a maze of flooded creeks and overgrown puddles. The land was not useful for development and so was left to go wild with trees and shrubs, left to grow wild for the imagination and exploration of children. Once I was old enough to be outside on my own, I spent nearly every nice afternoon down in the woods.

In Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman describes how it sometimes felt for me.  He writes:

THERE was a child went forth every day;  And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became; And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.   

There is something about the words of poets like Whitman that can capture and articulate my spiritual yearning in ways no theology or dogma can grasp.  Unitarian minister and activist John Haynes Holmes writes:

Nothing any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me very much, but everything that the poets have written about flowers, and birds, and skies, and seas and the saviors of the race, and God – whoever God may be – has at one time or another reached my soul.

For me, finding the writings of Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold, Walt Whitman and Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver and Chief Seattle, has lead me to a deeper understanding of my spirit.  Naturalists, poets, and great orators through the ages help me to articulate and integrate my experiences of the natural world and the rumblings within my own soul.  Yes, the words are often about flowers and birds and sky and sea, but they are also about my spirit and about God and about life lived with a fullness.

THERE was a child went forth every day;  And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became; And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.  

Those woods around my house became an indelible part of my soul for stretching cycles of years.  What have you looked upon?  What has held your attention and therefore defined some of who you are?  What do you feed you soul?  Or, what do you feed your soul when you have too much of the world.  For me, as a child, it was mostly the Flats.  It feels like I spent years down there, like it was an extension of my own home, like it was a second home.  When things were chaotic at home – or more often just empty at home – I would go out to the woods.  I was having a share of the chaos imprinted on my soul, and the emptiness.  It was good for me to also have a base of nature imprinted there as well.

I don’t want to paint my home life growing up as all bad.  There were moments; but I think over all I am a fairly typical ‘adult child of an alcoholic household’.  Time spent in nature became my spiritual touchstone. 

Last week I was talking with one of the groups here at the church about the sermon I delivered last month, “Faith for the hard times.”  Our discussion went into specifics, “What do you do when you are in the midst of the hard times?”  Well, if we give theologians the day off and let only the poets and naturalists speak, I think Wendell Berry’s poem about the heron and the despair gets as close as possible for me. 

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I do that from time to time.  I wake at night worrying, fearful of the trouble and danger in the world, concern for ‘what my life and my children’s lives may be.’  I worry some nights about the world my children are growing up in.  For me, as is implied in Berry’s poem, the extra concern for the lives of my children is something that puts it over the edge for me into the realm of despair.  I had despair for the world growing in me before I had children, don’t get me wrong.  And I don’t think people without children don’t understand or experience this sort of anxiety and heartache.  But for me, it was having children that raised my worry to a level that included others.  It became about more than just my own private fears and concerns. 

Because ultimately what I’m talking about, what I think Wendell Berry is talking about is bigger that the fear for my life and what my children’s lives may be.  It’s about the world and what’s gone wrong.  Dealing with greed and injustice, heartbreak and cruelty is hard enough.  Helping my children learn to deal with it too is that much harder.  And as an outgrowth of that, my concern grows beyond myself and my children to include all people around me that I care about.  I want to make the world a better place for everyone I care about, and I also want to strengthen everyone I care about to be better able to get through the hard times. 

So Wendell Berry feels this too, and what does he do? He says:

I go and lie down where the wood drake rests
in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.

I remember doing that as well.  I didn’t have herons and drakes there in the Flats.  But I remember going out to those woods around my house when I was old enough to think of it as ‘communing’ with nature. I would go with the express purpose of calming down and getting grounded.  I did find wood drakes and loons, though, in the Stillwater lakes around Camp Unirondack.  And the heron … I’ve probably told the story a dozen times of the time I was up at Unirondack as a young man, sitting on the dock in the early morning when a heron flew onto the lake and nearly settled on that same dock where I sat meditating.  It glided past me less than a foot from my shoulder while I sat breathless.  I could see the blue feathers, the curve of its neck, the black of its eye as it swept silently past me and sailed low over the water back across the lake away from me and out of sight.

Even just remembering the experience brings to mind the profound feelings I had of connectedness and peace in that moment.  Annie Dillard, after experiencing something like that with a tree of lights wrote, “I had been all my life a bell, and never knew it until that moment I was lifted and struck.” (from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) I think I have spent a good portion of my life since that encounter stopping at lakes and looking for birds and listening to the ringing in my soul.

What is it about such experiences that change them from seeing another bird as you go through your day to seeing through to the depth of living?  Perhaps it is simply an openness on our parts that might fit any moment that can slip in and crack us open all the way.

This morning outside I stood
And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush
Singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head
I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then
Everything holy now

 I have had a handful of encounters like that which have changed me, transformed me, or deepened my sense of the world and my place in the world.  Peter Mayer’s song says it so beautifully.  I do see that everything is holy now.  And I want to talk about God in everything; but the word ‘God.’ on the tongues of too many people, is too small a word for what I need it to mean.  I suppose, as I explained last week, “I could tell you, but only in Arabic.”  So for today, let the theologians hush while the poets speak of grace and suffering, beauty and despair.  Let the poets tell us something of what this experience has meant: the peace, the presence, the abiding sense of place that I find with the heron in the face of despair.  

Despair is an isolating experience.  Misery and worry turn me inward, cutting me off from my otherwise natural resources.  Experiences I carry in my heart of being in nature open me up, open me outward, open me to my connectedness. Wendell Berry’s poem says

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. 
I come into the presence of still water. 
I come into the presence of that stillness and that stillness calms my soul.

 At the end of this month I am going to retreat with my Unitarian Universalist colleagues in ministry.  We will be down in Florida, in Saint Petersburg near Tampa for nearly a week as January rolls into February.  Part of me feels a little guilty, like I’m sneaking off to balmy Florida while Binghamton freezes.  But another part of me is so grateful to have our retreat be at a place where there will be beauty that is new to me.  Whenever I am on retreat I make an effort to go out and find a wild place.  Usually this means woods and lakes where I can wander around.  I’m not sure what to do with beaches and the big expanse of ocean or gulf.  My spirit has always been well nourished by green branches and big hills, rambling creeks and still water.  Wendell Berry’s poem talks of coming into the presence of still water.  I’m not sure what I will do with such wide open, ever-rolling water, expansive, breathing water that is never still.  I’m not sure, but I am looking forward to learning – for I know my spirit needs this also.

The peace and calm that carries me through my trouble and drains my despair of its power, that peace is not simply the peace of still water and the memories of quiet, idyllic nature.  The real power of such experiences is in tapping into the rhythm of life itself.  It’s not the stillness, though it can feel that way for me at times.  It is not the stillness; it is instead the even rhythm.  The motion and the stillness belong to each other, the song and the silence together.

This is the lesson I learn from the natural world.  It is not the only lesson it has to offer.  But it is the healing one I learned to trust as a child.  Where have you gone for healing and renewal?  Your spirit needs nourishment, what do you feed yourself of beauty and love?  Where do you turn when worry and despair creep too close to your heart?  Wendell Berry goes to where the heron feeds; he goes into the presence of still water.  “And I feel above me the day-blind stars,” he writes, “waiting with their light.”

What an illuminating metaphor, “the day-blind stars.”  What guides do you seek out that are normally hidden.  The stars are here all day long, shining their light, hidden by the brilliance of the sun.  A life of the spirit can be like that too, present within you all the time though hidden within the ordinariness of living. What do you do to rediscover your center?

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests
in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. 
I come into the presence of still water. 
And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Grace.  I rest in the grace of the world.  I need more grace in my life.  Let all those simple meanings of the word pour over you when you hear this line: grace as the gracefulness of a dancer, grace as the gratitude offered before a meal, grace as the extra time offered beyond what is expected, grace as a gift.  For a time I rest in the grace, the extra time, the gratitude, the elegant dancing movement, the gift.  I rest in the grace of the world. 

When I rediscover my center, I rest in the grace of the world.  When I feed my spirit on beauty, I rest in the grace of the world.  When I find healing and renewal then I rest in the gratitude, the elegant movement, the extra time, the gift – of the world, and am free.  When despair for the world grows in me I know what I can must do to be free.  It is not fail-proof, but it works often enough to be nearly so. 

All the world over, in scripture and in poetry through the ages, people have proclaimed not only how good the earth is and how blessed but also how we can learn from it.  “[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise.”  Take the time to step aside to rediscover your center.  Perhaps for you as it is for me, there is grace to be found down by the still water where the wood drake rests in his beauty and the great heron feeds.  Perhaps for you as it is for me, there is memory and poetry and calm to be found just a breath away from the turmoil of the day.  Perhaps when despair comes creeping into your heart, and fear for what your life and the lives of those you love may be, there is yet a way for you to let the fear slip by and the despair to leak all its power away because you have found the way back into the woods where your spirit is nourished and your heart is healed and you can rest for a time in the elegant movement of life, and be free.

In a world without end,

May it be so

Faith for the Hard Times

Faith for the Hard Times
Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 16, 2012

 

I did not change the readings (“Hanukkah” by Kathleen McTigue and “Gratitude is not enough” by Elizabeth Tarbox) or other worship elements that were set on Thursday afternoon for the order of service to be printed up.  I figured if the topic and sermon title held true then what we have would serve.  But I typically have only a start or an outline on Thursday evening for the sermon.  Friday and Saturday evening are writing days.

My plan for today was to remind you of the meaning of Yule.  I was going to talk about what we do when the night grows dark and long, when the wind blows hard and cold.  I was going to talk about how we store up reserves against the winter and we must store up faith against the winters of our souls.  I was going to tell you about reaching down into the basement of your heart to find there in the small and broken places the pieces that carry you through the worst of times.  And I suppose I am still going to tell you all of that.

Many of us I am sure have heard the horrible news of the shooting that took place in Newtown Connecticut this Friday.  A gunman opened fire at an elementary school killing over 20 people most of whom where children.  I remember tell you all back at the beginning of the month where I was preaching about a disturbing and brilliant novel that the part which disturbed me most was the violence against the children in the story.  And then as I was working through what I would say this morning the events of Friday morning began pouring through the news to me.  This kind of horrific tragedy tends to turn me into a ball of raging impotency.  I get angry and sad and protective and frustrated.  I want to do something and be helpful, but I’m not there and I don’t even know what I would do if I were.  So I get frustrated and sad.

My colleagues around the country have been talking over the weekend about what to do this Sunday and how to respond.  I figured my sermon topic was already set and suitable.  What do you do when you need a faith sufficient to get you though the darkest nights? 

Unitarian Universalism is something of a sunshine faith.  One of the real strengths of Unitarian Universalism, and all liberal religion really, is the affirmation of human potential.  Our base statement of faith is that all people have inherent worth and dignity; that we can choose to do good in the world, that we can do our part to usher in the beloved community.  Our commitment to freedom and tolerance is another hallmark of liberal religion.  But the edge to this is that these affirmations do not address suffering and evil head on. 

What do our words of freedom and tolerance offer in the face of mass murder at an elementary school?  Certainly freedom and tolerance still matter but that doesn’t offer comfort or meaning in the face of such events.  Certainly I can still say all people have inherent worth and can do good in the world.  And yet here is this gunman in Connecticut who murdered 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds.  I don’t want to talk about his dignity and potential for good.  I can do it.  Because it is real, the shooter did have inherent worth as a human being, I can do it.  I’m a professional, I can talk about if I must; but it is jarring. 

But we don’t start, theologically, from a place that names such actions evil.  Other theological systems begin with how we human beings are fallen, how we are born in sin, how all life is suffering, how destruction and creation go hand in hand.  Our theology starts with a promise.  We don’t even begin with a statement about human nature; that comes next.  And here I am referring to the Unitarian Universalist Principles, “We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  And these Seven Principles in our covenant are really not in and of themselves “our theology,” not really.  But that’s a layer of nuance that right now is a little annoying.  

But my point is we don’t start by declaring humanity fallen or sinful or stuck with suffering unless we figure something out.  We start by saying everyone, every single person, has worth and dignity; and no one gets excluded.  And while I have no interest in backing away from that commitment, our onward-and-upward theology does not say much for us when we experience loss and pain, when we are suffering or heartbroken.  Or maybe what our theology says when we experience loss and pain, suffering and heartbreak is simply: “Yes, that hurts.  It’s true.” 

Our way of faith leads us toward a realistic outlook on life.  It is still a hopeful outlook, an optimistic one, but realistic as well.  And it leads us to take stock of our own resources. Unitarian preacher and author from a few generations back, Henry Emerson Fosdick offers it this way:

Nobody ever finds life worth living.  One always has to make it worth living.  All the people to whom life has been abundantly worth living have made it so by an interior creative, spiritual contribution of their own.  Is life worth living?  Most people seem to think that is a question about the cosmos.  No, my friends, that is a question about the inside attitude of you and me.

The meaning of life is to give life meaning.  And while I believe that to be true, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes that’s not enough.  Sometimes this feels a little too much like we’re a do-it-yourself religion – which is great when you’re up for it.  But when my resources are low and my energy is expended I am not always up to the task of pulling myself up by my own theological bootstraps. 

But let me tell you where we go from here, our interconnectedness offers us more than our independence ever could.  I am reminded of a song UU minster Meg Barnhouse wrote using the famous statement of faith by Julian of Norwich who said, “All shalll be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  In the song, Barnhouse poses a conversation with Julian and asks, how can you say, “All shall be well”?  Don’t you know about sorrow and hunger and shame, don’t you know about loneliness and disease and cruelty?  How can you say, “All shall be well,” when all these terrible things are out there in the human experience. 

The song goes on with Barnhouse’s imagined response from Julian who says, “Nobody does not know about sorrow and hunger and shame.  No one does not know about loneliness and disease and cruelty.  But don’t you know there is also tenderness and friendship and love that never ends.  And all shall be well, and all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well.”

The song lifts up some of Julian of Norwich’s theology that suffering does not come from God.  More, I think it offers some Unitarian Universalist theology that the way through suffering is in relationship – either relationship with God or simple human relationship, the song is open enough for different interpretations.  It is our connections that feed us through the hard times.  We each have a depth of experience and we have the support of tender, loving friends that can lead us to uncover a faith strong enough for the dark of night.

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.  It is such a calm assurance.  All shall be well.  No, it is not all well right now.  But all shall be well. 

This calm assurance, this faith, is something to help us get unstuck from the mire of grief and anger that can overwhelm us.  Faith is that personal discipline of calm trust when facing challenges and of a realistic hope for the future.

Yes, there are the difficulties of today and tomorrow, the grief and frustrations of yesterday and today, but we can still carry a calm assurance that we can get through.  We sometimes confuse the faith to be synonymous with belief.  It is not.  Faith is more like trust.  What you trust, what you have faith in – that’s your belief, but faith is the calm assurance that grows from our lived beliefs.  Faith is that core you can touch at your center and always find refreshing.  It is experiences that pour into you like living water. 

Let me offer you a story that can serve also as an analogy.  Antoine de Saint Exupery writes about a remarkable experience he had while flying a mail plane between southern France and northern Africa sometime in the 1920’s or early 30’s.  He and the radio controller were flying over the Sahara toward Cisneros on the western coast of the desert.  It was night and they were running low on fuel and a fog crept in to obscure their ability to see.  This was back before all the gadgets to help plans navigate.  The men flew low trying to spot a landmark because they knew they were off course but didn’t know by how much.

Saint Exupery writes:

We had no means of angular orientation, were already deafened, and were bit by bit growing blind.  The moon like a pallid ember began to go out in the banks of fog. … The ports that signaled us had given up trying to tell us where we were.  “No bearings, no bearings,” was all their messages, for our voice reached them from everywhere and nowhere.     (Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939, p 26-32)

People describe the experience of being spiritually or emotionally lost like this sometimes.  It’s like we’re in a fog with no bearings or landmarks, like we are in the dark.  Sometimes it is an obvious tragedy that shakes us up and leads us to question our lives, other times the lostness creeps up on us quietly.  Or maybe it is not about feeling lost so much as an endless struggle with personal suffering.  But this imagery is compelling.  This weekend, I have felt like I’ve lost my bearings.  I was looking so closely at the heartbreaking story unfolding in Connecticut that I lost sight of the landmarks of my faith. 

Saint Exupery reports that they flew on like that, blind and unguided for some time, anxious that they would run out of fuel at all too soon.  Then finally Cisneros, their destination, makes radio contact.  The two in the plane are able to get a bearing, but still they are nearly out of fuel and sure they will not be able to make it.  Exupery sets their course so they will not land in the Mediterranean at least.  He writes how other airports begin to wake up and chime in.  “Bit by bit they were gathering round us,” he writes, “as round a sickbed.”  And suddenly Toulouse breaks in, the headquarters for the line back in France.  They simply say without preamble: “Your reserve tanks are bigger than standard.  You have two hours fuel left.  Proceed to Cisneros.”

I think this story from Saint Exupery’s experience is illustrative not only of the ‘dark night of the soul’ type experiences of lostness and meaninglessness; it also shows something of the way we get through such experiences.  Part of the answer is in the response of the community, and part of the answer is in the larger than believed reserves we each carry.  “Though the oil has run out, light the lamps anyway.”  This story leads me to see both my own resources and the companionship of others as the ground on which I discover my faith. 

A decent place to begin is always with acknowledging that what you feel is real.  Broken, bruised, scattered, alone or lost.  Start there, for it is true.  To act with faith is to then proceed with a realistic hope for the future while facing the challenges of today with a calm trust.  It may not work out, but that’s not the point.  Faith, if it is really faith, is a gamble and no guarantee.  And a faith suitable for the darkest nights, for the hardest times, is the only faith worth having. 

So think on the tenderness and compassion around you in your times of difficulty.  Think on the ports that light up with concern, as Saint Exupery put is.  Consider the companions with you on your journey.  And consider the reserves you have within.  Your reserves are larger than standard, they are larger than you think.

Regardless of how broken we may feel or scattered or lost.  We are connected with all that is.  Indeed the brokenness and heartache, the pain and suffering is a signal of our connectedness and of our compassion. 

Faith is like the reserves we store up in our basements for the winter, back when winter really meant something more than it does today.  When the night grows long and dark, and the wind blows hard and cold, remember your reserves. Remember to reach down into the basement of your heart to find there in the small and broken places the pieces that carry you through the worst of times.  And remember to reach out to the companions with you calling from different ports around you. Take heart, though we feel lost and we fly blind – we are not alone. 

In a world without end,

may it be so

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hope, Hunger, and the Truth about Fiction

Hope, Hunger, and the Truth about Fiction
Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 2, 2012

 

Hope is my topic for today.  Of course, that means I also want to talk about courage, but primarily the focus is on ‘hope.’  Hope is that secret something within us that leads us to work for a better world.  Emily Dickenson says ..

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops – at all

It is hope that allows us to imagine a better future or a better way to live.  It is hope that helps us see the possibility of more love, more justice, more peace in our world. 

All this I have said before and will continue to say in years to come.  But today I would like to add an extra layer to all this by looking at Hope through the story of a popular and disturbing work of young adult fiction.  Fiction is a remarkable vehicle for our common conversation about humanity and truth and what it means to be human.  Joseph Campbell made the point that myths, indeed all powerful stories, tell us something of what it means to be human.  Fiction and myth can serve to help us understand problems and explore solutions. 

The particular piece of fiction I want to explore today is the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  The first book came out in 2008, the other two each a year later.  These books have been on the New York Times Bestsellers List for practically that whole time.  In the spring of 2012, the first movie came out.  I’ve seen the movie and have read the books.  How many of you have read the books or seen the movie?  I recommend them, they are very good.  But they are dark and disturbing, you should know.

In the first book, we learn that following environmental devastation, a continent-wide country of Panem has been created.  After its districts revolt and are defeated, the Capitol punishes them by requiring that each send two “tributes,” a boy and a girl, every year to participate in the Hunger Games, a nationally televised fight to the death.  The heroine, Katniss, volunteers to be her district’s tribute after her sister’s name is called, and she is sent to the Capitol to compete, along with Peeta, a baker’s son from her district who once threw her some bread when she was starving.  In the following books, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, Katniss becomes the symbol for a growing revolution against the totalitarian state. (Cynthia Landrum’s UU World article “Seeing Ourselves in ‘The Hunger Games’” p 50 Fall 2012)

The Hunger Games is a dark and violent novel.  It is often lumped in with books like the Harry Potter series or C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.  But I think that is a mistake.  And it is more than simply the distinction between fantasy and science fiction.  My concern is closer to the one I had when I saw parents transitioning their young children straight from Barney the purple dinosaur to Jurassic Park.  I think the Hunger Games trilogy is more appropriate for older teens and young adults than for middle school and elementary aged kids. 

The Hunger Games falls into that particular genre of fiction known as ‘Dystopian Science Fiction.’ Dystopian fiction in general and dystopian science fiction in particular serves a distinct function of social critique.  Classics fiction like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale are examples of fiction that offer a warning to their contemporary culture.  Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy joins these ranks as a far-reaching cultural phenomenon. 

Tens of millions of copies have been published and the first book has only been out for four years. The books are not only hugely popular, they are also controversial.  They have a place on the ALA list of ‘frequently banned or challenged’ books.  I admit I have not offered them to my 11 year old yet. The bulk of the challenges I have seen tend to focus on middle school libraries, and as I mentioned before I have an opinion about the age category for which this book is written.

Violence and the effects of war and violence are certainly a theme in the books.  The premise of the book is a combination between reality TV and the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.  In the Greek myth Athens is required, as a form of punishment for past deeds, to send 7 boys and 7 girls to Crete every year where they are thrown into the Labyrinth and devoured by the Minotaur.  Collins also mentioned a more contemporary inspiration for the trilogy: the juxtaposition between the glut of Reality TV programming and the orchestrated news coverage of the Gulf War.  So war and violence are a dominant theme throughout the story.  Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, the effects of war and violence are the dominant theme.

A companion meta-theme for the trilogy is economic injustice and oppression.  There is a very stark division between the “haves” living in the Capitol and the “have-nots” living out in the districts.  And this is an echo, a critique of our own living where some people support an ‘economic survival of the fittest’ model where we are encouraged to not only pull ourselves up by our economic bootstraps but also to push others off the cliff as we go.  “As with all good dystopian literature,” Cynthia Landrum writes in her UU World article on the topic, “the trilogy exaggerates realities we see in our own society.”

The Hunger Games is disturbing.  It is disturbing to imagine that the people in the Capitol could find children killing other children to be entertainment.  In this fictional future however, people tolerate it. It is hard to imagine a society that will grow decadent on “bread and circus” while others nearby starve and die to provide for them.  And yet in this fictional future, the people tolerate it. 

And this is the crux of what a good dystopian novel can offer, the opportunity for reflection and critique of our own lives.  What are we tolerating?  What is going on around us in terms of war and violence that we tolerate?  What is happening to our children that we tolerate?  What are the conditions we live with in terms of the “haves” and the “have-nots” that we tolerate?

Frederick Douglass is quoted in a reading at the back of our hymnal, “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.” The passage continues saying,

Find out what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice which will be imposed upon them.  The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. (SLT #579)

There is a disturbing scene in the second book where Capitol party goers take a vomit-inducing drink so they can continue to consume more food.  Like the stories of decadent Romans going through a binge and purge cycle merely to indulge in the taste of exotic foods, the Capitol residents do this while citizens of the districts starve.  Again, this seems intolerable yet in this fictitious future, it is common place.

But is so unimaginable?  The United Nations reports that approximately 20,000 children per day die from hunger around the world – 20,000 children per day.  Each day nearly a billion people go to bed hungry according to UN reports.  And we tolerate that.  Certainly the analogy is exaggerated.  We sitting here in this room are not working a binge and purge feast cycle so as to consume merely for the taste and fashion of it all.  Yet we know hunger is felt in this town and in the whole world. 

In the book, the tension is so fierce it leads to revolution.  What can we do in our real lives?  We are not living in the exaggerated extreme portrayed in the Hunger Games, but a response is still possible to the hunger and poverty and violence we see in our lives.

As individuals many of us support local and global charities and organizations that make a difference in the world on the exact issues presented in the Hunger Games.  As a congregation we take our monthly special collection to support local and global agencies from CHOW to Oxfam.  Our Social Justice committee hosts the weekly salad portion of the Sarah Jane Johnson community free dinner each Tuesday.  We also help prepare bagged lunches every other Saturday morning with Trinity Church and donate the fruit for those lunches.  Food and Nutrition has been a major aspect of our Social Justice efforts over the past few years.  More of us could be involved in these activities.

In an interview, the author Suzanne Collins turned the question and answer model around and asked young readers listening a question, “If there is anything [in the books] that disturbs you …, what can you do about it?” 

I am most disturbed by the childhood violence portrayed in the book, what can I do about that?  I can become a stronger advocate against bullying. I can raise awareness about violence against children.  And I can continue to help create a community where children are safe and where we all can heal from our wounds.

What disturbs you in the books?  Or if you haven’t read the books or seen the movie I can just ask instead, what disturbs you?  It doesn’t have to come from this or any book.  But fiction does have a way of slipping into our awareness and settling into our consciences; of reminding us of our yearnings and hopes for a better world.

A colleague of mine, reflecting on our own patterns of social activism, likes to say we fall prey to compassion fatigue.  We burn out.  We burn hot for a time, impassioned, but then burn out.  But changing the big things that disturb us, addressing the oppression and injustice in our time is not something that can be done quickly.  In a novel, the heroine can make in all fall into place within a few hundred pages that take us a leisurely week to get through.  But in real life, these things take a lifetime. 

It is good to remember, perhaps, that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 year awaiting liberation to come.  And that was only one part of his life’s work.  Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest for 15 years.  But she did not lose hope, she did not lose heart.  Hope is a key ingredient for change.  Hope leads us to courage and determination; hope opens us to possibilities.  Hope it the critical ingredient. 

There is a scene in the movie that is not in the book.  It fits the book and is in keeping with the events, but the exact event is not in the book. It is the scene in which the president of the Capitol, President Snow, is talking with the game-master, the man who creates the particulars of the annual fight-to-the-death games.  Katniss had just done something remarkable that has won people to her side not because she is cruel or vicious but because she shows compassion.  President Snow, trying to get the game-master to understand the trouble this young girl’s behavior might cause, asks the other man if he knows why each year there is a winner.  Why not just kill all the tributes each year, why bother having any of them survive?  President Snow explains, “Hope: It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, so long as it’s contained.”  The game-master asks, “So what should I do?”  Snow leans in and says, “Contain it.”  It’s chilling. 

Hope is a fundamental human experience that belies reality and evidence.  The poet Alexander Pope wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”  Some scientific research suggests hope is something we are hard-wired for.   Sigmund Freud, however, suggested that hope was merely a delusion.  Karl Marx’s quote about ‘the opiate of the masses’ applies for the concept of hope as well for religion in general.  And Nietzsche, at his nihilistic finest wrote: “Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.” Nietzsche, Marx and Freud are pointing out how hope can be a tool to keep people trying when evidence suggests failure is the only possible result.  President Snow was offering the same council to his game-master.  But Snow qualified it saying, “a little hope is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous.” A little hope, in Snow’s worldview and in that of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, is merely a shallow optimism.  In the hands of a master manipulator, a little hope can be a tool of oppression. 

Because the truth is that our hopes are often frustrated by our lived reality.  Death still claims our loved ones, relationships do fall apart, jobs are lost, rivers overflow their banks, and injustice and oppression have not disappeared in our lifetimes.  Our hopes do get dashed.  But that is not all there is to the story.  Hope endures.  We are hard-wired for hope and it leads us to endure.  “A little hope is effective,” Snow said.  “A lot of hope is dangerous.”

Emily Dickenson says hope is a thing with feathers.  That makes it sound soft and gentle.  But truly what she is saying is that it lives and it endures. 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops – at all

Hope is dangerous because hope leads us to live our lives differently, to see the possibilities of change.  Hope is the fertile ground of imagination and imagination is a tragically underrated capacity in our society.  Imaginative thinking leads to transformative action.  The biggest theme half hidden in the Hunger Games trilogy is the power of hope.  Remember the bread and the dandelion.  If you’ve read the book, remember the pin and the song.  The author tucks moments of hope throughout the book.  Hope is the spark that can light the way to change.  Hope is the companion to the beauty and the brokenness of our lives that allows us to uncover meaning and the courage to reach out.   What disturbs you about the world and makes you yearn for something better.  Hope is the spark that lights the way to change. 

In a world without end,

May it be so

 

All Voices Day

All Voices Day
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 4, 2012

 

They say the two things you can’t discuss with company if you want things to remain civil are politics and religion.  Many of you have described situations to me of how this little proverb holds true for you and your family at holiday times.  Several of you here have talked about being the only Unitarian Universalist among a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Southern Baptists, or fundamentalist Christians.  Others have described being the only politically liberal member of the family.  It can be hard to be the only voice, alone in the room, speaking what is almost a different language. It is often easier to simply remain silent. 

In my family we have this same situation in reverse.  My brother is the odd one out.  My sisters and I are all liberals in terms of both politics and religion.  My brother has become a very conservative in his politics and his religion.  Our mother has a habit of sending e-mail jokes and cartoons to us kids, and in October and November every other year these jokes and cartoons take a very political edge to them. 

Two years back at the 2010 election cycle, my brother responded to the political e-mails with his own conservative perspective, which launched that painful version of conversation that one might expect given the topic and the venue.  Have any of you had less than productive e-mail exchanges over an emotionally charged topic?  Have you had some of this sort of conversation at the Thanksgiving table? 

The level of political discourse in the country in general is not a healthy model for us in our day-to-day interactions with friends and family.  Newspapers and magazines have been featuring articles lately about the decline of political civility.  Politics is becoming less and less about logic and rational thought and more about emotional appeals and sound bytes. 

Civil political dialogue is something we are not seeing in this country right now.  We are seeing bald rhetoric and half (or should I say at best, half) truths. Winston Churchill famously said many years back, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”  Is it not amazing how the digital communication age has allowed this quote to become only more and more accurate over the years?  In her book, Saving Civility, author Sara Hacala says:

There is a danger in swallowing whole the inflammatory statements of demagogues who demonize the other side and promulgate a single truth.  It is imperative for us to recognize red-hot rhetoric for what it is – language intended to play upon and incite the emotion of a crowd resulting in a mob mentality no longer capable of thinking clearly.  (Saving Civility, p 74)

I remember speaking with a first-time candidate for a local election recently.  This person was dismayed at how at how uncivil the political discourse had become.  The candidate bemoaned the way everything was reduced to clichés without content when they thought there would be more actual debate of issues.

All this election season I have been thinking about this and about the slide from political information to propaganda that has been dividing us as a nation.  I’ve been thinking about my brother and his very different political perspective.  So last week, in an attempt not so much to open a dialogue or debate as to check in, I sent a note to my brother asking him why he liked the candidate he was supporting. 

The reply I got back was rather defensive, but he did respond.  He answered saying he would normally ignore an attempt from a family member drawing him into politics but, since I asked nicely and I seemed sincere, he would respond.  He added a few caveats like “please don’t try to tell my how I’m wrong,” and “I could go on but I really don’t want to get into a debate or even a simple discussion, I’m pretty much sick and tired of presidential politics and propaganda.”  But I had asked nicely; and so he shared a little of his actual perspective.  

It is remarkable how much can be accomplished with kindness.  Sara Hacala, again in her book Saving Civility, wrote:

I have come to learn that it is possible to say almost anything, however disagreeable, if presented in a tone that is devoid of anger, belligerence, sarcasm, criticism, superiority, judgment, impatience, or ugliness.  (Saving Civility p 61)

That’s quite a list, isn’t it!  But listen to it again and see how they all tie together.  She is saying we should strive to strike a tone with our language that is devoid of “anger, belligerence, sarcasm, criticism, superiority, judgment, impatience, or ugliness.”  This is certainly not simple, but neither it is untenable.

I think we are lulled into forgetting this reality.  I think the crassness of our common political discourse has blinded us to other ways of communicating about politics.  And it becomes remarkable how much can be accomplished with kindness.  Here’s what I think I accomplished in sending that note to my brother: I did not ‘win’ my brother over to my way of thinking. Of course, that had not been my goal anyway. My goal was to get him to tell me something real about his politics.  I don’t think I really accomplished that goal, for that would have involved a discussion, which he was not open for.  But what I did accomplish was an opening.  I ‘listened’ him into speaking at least a little. 

What would it be like for you if one of those friends or family members with whom you disagree were to actually listen to your perspective?  Not that they, who have disagreed all long, would suddenly agree – only that they would hear you out.  Now, can you imagine offering that?  Do you think you could draw out someone you disagree with? 

I’m not suggesting this necessarily as something to do with every person you meet.  Rather I think this is a way to approach important relationships in your life that you find strained each election season.  It is a way to make room for another person’s voice.  It is a way to educate yourself on the issues that matter to you. Walter Cronkite said, “In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story.”  I take it as a tenet of liberalism to seek both sides of a story even while leaning a little left of the story.

In today’s partisan and ideological climate, the extremes are getting the loudest voices.  The general public is fed the extreme voices as if they are the only voices in the conversation.  Other perspectives are drown out or intentionally misconstrued.  It was author Robert McCloskey who said, “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”  The way people hear and critique political perspectives with which they disagree seems at times to slip into willful misunderstanding.  It is like everyone has given up on actually listening to other people.

And while I want to believe this is mostly happening among conservatives I feel compelled by logic to wonder at what I hear from the liberals as well.  From what I have been hearing, the conservative voices in our country today are shaping into a monolithic unity that disallows moderate or in any way nuanced conservative voices.  I long for a moderate conservative voice I can disagree with and yet respect. 

It is not news to point out that as a liberal religious movement we Unitarian Universalists attract a majority of people who are also liberal in their politics.  I know we used to have politically conservative voices in Unitarian Universalism and yet I don’t hear from you much these days.  I can’t help thinking it is not all the fault of other conservatives and their neo-conservative corporatocracy narrative.  I suspect the politically liberal majority within our faith movement is also pushing for a liberal extreme.  I wonder how many of you feel a sense of affinity with my brother when he says he is just tired of trying to talk about it and tired of not being heard.

I truly think the problem is not that we are lacking the variety of perspective, what we lack is the possibility for civil political conversation.  In Sara Hacala’s book that I have quoted from a few times already, she offers basic tips on how to regain civility, something lacking in our political discourse these days.  The book has sections on “Respecting the boundaries of others,” “Discerning the right meaning,” “Resisting rhetoric,” and “Choose your heroes wisely.”  The book does not advocate for every voice to have equal sway, only equal hearing.  Hacala also calls for “Striving for truth” and “Disagree agreeably.”  All this is very much in line with Nonviolent Communication or Compassionate Communication.

Her book offers a very personal application to this societal problem.  Her thesis is that each person’s individual stance for or against civility in the political realm has an impact.  In the introduction she offers this gem from a book by social scientists Christakis and Fowler: “Our world is governed by the Three Degrees of Influence Rule: we influence and are influenced by people up to three degrees removed from us, most of whom we do not even know.”  (from Connected by Christakis and Fowler) Acts of generosity travel contagiously, as do acts of stinginess, according to experiments in their report.  This does work.  Engaging with the people who you see on the other side of the issue actually makes a difference.  Listen to their perspective.  Build trust and an openness to hearing each other by hearing the other yourself.  When the situation allows you to, engage with both the facts and the emotional aspects of an issue.

I could almost take a paragraph from my sermon last month on respecting different religious perspectives for it is the same principle.  It is a principle at the heart of our way of faith as Unitarian Universalists.  That is why this sermon is not a political rant but a faithful appeal.  Our faith calls us to be open to others and to support them as we would be supported in the free and responsible search for truth.

Yesterday I posted on facebook a thoughtful blog I’d found about the political debate around abortion.  It was a nuanced piece going in depth with the implications of some of the recent political positions on the issue.  One person responded to the post after reading it by saying: “Interesting application of a dash of common sense, a hint of empathy, and a few minutes’ actual thought on the matter. Weird how politics is devoid of all three.”

I suppose at the end of the day that is what I’m asking for from myself, from you, and from everyone in the country: a dash of common sense, a hint of empathy, and a few minutes’ actual thought on the matter.  Your voice has an impact.  Your voice is needed in the political discourse.  Our faith calls us to be engaged and to help others to be engaged as well. 

Shouting won’t get us there.  Half-truths and sound-bytes will not get us there.  Media spin will not get us there.  Try listening.  Try engaging.  Try civility.  That is what our faith demands of us.  That is what our democratic republic demands of us.  Our goal is not a unified voice, but a democracy of all voices.  Our goal is not just to let my voice or your voice join the chorus, but to lift up all voices. 

In a world without end,

May it be so.