Monday, January 25, 2021

Did We Inaugurate a New Era, or Just a Person?

 from a Zoom service of First Parish in Billerica, Massachusetts
January 24, 2021

Opening Words

The opening words are by Pheidippides, the Athenian messenger who ran all the way from the plains of Marathon to the Acropolis. Just before collapsing and dying from exhaustion, he announced the outcome of the battle against the Persian invaders: “Nike! Nike! Nenikekiam!” Victory! Victory! Rejoice!

Meditation

Imagine that it is a year ago — January 2020. We are gathered in your beautiful, historic sanctuary. I’m standing at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s pulpit, when suddenly I am overcome by the spirit of prophesy. And I tell you that one year hence, we will have inaugurated a new president, who will receive a record number of votes and win by more than seven million, even flipping states like Arizona and Georgia. For the first time in American history, a woman of color will be vice president. The new White House will be backed up by majorities in both houses of Congress.

Now imagine that you all believe me. After the service, we go downstairs to share that wonderful spread of food you always assemble. Listen to the room as it burbles with optimism and idealism and we envision all the wonderful things the new administration might accomplish.

Responsive Reading

It Matters What We Believe” by Sophia Lyon Fahs

Reading

Excerpts from:  “A QAnon ‘Digital Soldier’ Marches On, Undeterred by Theory’s Unraveling” by Kevin Roose.

Every morning, Valerie Gilbert, a Harvard-educated writer and actress, wakes up in her Upper East Side apartment; feeds her dog, Milo, and her cats, Marlena and Celeste; brews a cup of coffee; and sits down at her oval dining room table.Then, she opens her laptop and begins fighting the global cabal.

Ms. Gilbert, 57, is a believer in QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory. Like all QAnon faithful, she is convinced that the world is run by a Satanic group of pedophiles that includes top Democrats and Hollywood elites, and that President Trump has spent years leading a top-secret mission to bring these evildoers to justice. ...

These are confusing times for followers of QAnon. They were told that Mr. Trump would be re-elected in a landslide, and that a coming “storm” would expose the global pedophile ring and bring its leaders to justice.

But there have been no mass arrests, and Mr. Trump is leaving office on Wednesday under the cloud of a second impeachment. Many prominent QAnon followers have been arrested for their roles in this month’s deadly mob riot at the U.S. Capitol. They are being barred by the thousands from major social networks for spreading misinformation about voter fraud, and law enforcement agencies are treating the movement as a domestic extremist threat.

These setbacks have left QAnon believers like Ms. Gilbert hoping for a last-minute miracle. Her current theory is that Mr. Trump will not actually leave office on Wednesday, but will instead declare martial law, declassify damning information about the “deep state” and arrest thousands of cabal members, including President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. ...

What attracts Ms. Gilbert and many other people to QAnon 
isn’t just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It’s the community and sense of mission it provides. New QAnon believers are invited to chat rooms and group texts, 
and their posts are showered with likes and retweets. They make friends, 
and are told that they are not lonely Facebook addicts 
squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi photos, 
but patriots gathering “intel” for a righteous revolution. ...

Q, who once sent dozens of updates a day, has essentially vanished from the internet in recent weeks, posting only four times since the November election. ... But Ms. Gilbert isn’t worried. For her, QAnon was always less about Q and more about the crowdsourced search for truth. She loves assembling her own reality in real time, patching together shards of information and connecting them to the core narrative. ... When she solves a new piece of the puzzle, she posts it to Facebook, where her QAnon friends post heart emojis and congratulate her.

This week, when Mr. Biden becomes president and Mr. Trump leaves the White House, it will be a huge blow to QAnon’s core mythology, and it may force some believers to acknowledge that they’ve been lied to. Many will cope by spinning the development as a win, or saying it proves that Mr. Trump is playing the long game. Others will quietly ditch Q and transfer their enthusiasm to a new conspiracy theory. A few might be jolted back to reality.

But Ms. Gilbert is undeterred. She trusts Q’s plan, at least for a little while longer, and she wants [others] to trust it, too.

Sermon

I want to start by standing up to show you my t-shirt. It says “Democracy & I Survived 2020”. I had it made because in spite of Wednesday’s inauguration, 2020 felt less like a triumph than like something to get through.

The reason I had the meditation take you back to a year ago, and then imagine forward how we might have felt then if we had foreseen this outcome, is that it contrasts so strongly with how I and so many of the people I know actually do feel right now.

If I’d convinced you of that prophecy a year ago I think we really would have buzzed with excitement. But to be honest, I’m not doing a lot of buzzing and burbling these days. Because I didn’t get to jump straight from last January to this one. Like everybody else, I had to make that journey one day at a time, and it wore me down. Maybe it wore you down too.

All the unnecessary death. All the senseless partisan conflict about basic public-health practices like masks and social distancing. All the things we had to give up: restaurants, travel, concerts, aimless shopping, hanging around reading in coffee shops and libraries. Deb and I missed the funeral of my brother-in-law in Tennessee, and broke a decades-long tradition of spending Christmas with our friends.

I’m sure each of you has your own list of missed events and broken habits -- habits that probably turned out to mean more to you than you had ever realized. Worse, maybe the virus took someone close to you. Maybe you had a rough time with your own health. Maybe you lost your job or had to close your business. Or maybe you kept your job because you are an essential worker who has to deal with the public, but every day you wonder whether some customer or client is going to infect you.

This has also been a hard year to live through politically. It started and ended with an impeachment. George Floyd was murdered, touching off weeks of protests both peaceful and violent.

The big question in the election turned out not to be who the voters would choose, but whether our choice would even matter. After he lost, the president did everything he could to hang onto power, and every time the issue seemed to be settled, it wasn’t. There was always one more thing he could try, one more weak spot in the system that he could push on, all the way up to gathering a mob and inciting it to attack Congress as it counted the electoral votes. Not until the inauguration Wednesday could we really be sure that democracy had held.

So rather than bursting with optimism and excitement, I think many of us arrive at this moment feeling as exhausted as that Athenian messenger. Nike! Nike! Nenikekiam! 2021! The Biden administration! We made it; now we can collapse.

But if there’s one message I want you to take away from this morning, it’s that this is not the time to collapse. And I’m directing that message as much at myself as at the rest of you. What I would like to have offered you this morning is a visionary, energizing message about all the possibilities of this moment. I would like to have sparked that classic Unitarian optimism you can hear in the hymns. “These Things Shall Be” — the Future is coming, and won’t it be wonderful.

Instead, what I can find it in myself to tell you is that the Future needs us. It needs us active, it needs us engaged. Because if we pull back now, if we say, “I voted. Now let Joe do it” then all that Wednesday will mean is that we inaugurated a man. But we will not have inaugurated the new era our country needs.

The old president may be gone, but simply replacing the people in power does not produce real change in a democracy. Because real change doesn’t come from the top down. Democracies only transform when those at the top respond to a genuine hunger for change that bubbles up from the People. Without that popular demand, even well-intentioned government loses momentum. The big financial interests, the people who benefit from the status quo — they never go away.They never stop asking for what they want. They never tire of spreading disinformation and corruption.

If those are the only voices our leaders hear, it won’t matter how many good intentions they had when they took office. Eventually, they’ll once again end up explaining to us how they want the same good things we do, but it’s just not possible. Change is never possible unless the People demand it.

But if the Future needs our engagement as citizens, I think it needs even more our participation as Unitarian Universalists. Because I believe that Unitarian Universalism has something very special to offer this nation and the world at this moment in history.

It’s not hard to make a list of the challenges we face: not just the pandemic and the economic problems it has caused, but also the less immediate but far less tractable challenge of climate change. The long history of systemic racism demands our attention. Growing economic inequality. The rise of authoritarianism around the world. The millions of people who are here without legal status and the millions of others who would like to come. Working out a world order that finds a place for China, but is not dominated by it. I could go on.

But no matter which of those challenges you feel called to address, you’re going to run into the same obstacle: Our society, our culture, is losing its respect for Truth. More and more all the time, our national conversation is corrupted by the idea that if you don’t want believe something, you don’t have to. We’ve lost sight of the fact that there is a Reality out there that can only be denied for so long.

Look at the pandemic. For nearly a year, our recently departed president tried everything he could think of to conjure it away. He told us the virus wouldn’t come here, that it would fade away by magic, that it would be gone when the weather got warm, that it was just the flu, the common cold, it wasn’t serious, people weren’t really dying, the numbers were exaggerated, and on and on. Wednesday morning, before he boarded Air Force One for the last time, he spoke of the pandemic in the past tense, as if hadn’t been at its peak at that very moment. But all that denial, all that distraction, couldn’t make it go away.

Or think about global warming. The reality is simple: Burning fossil fuels increases the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas; it reflects back to Earth infrared radiation that otherwise would escape into space. So the planet gets warmer. 

It would be nice if that weren’t true. I see the attraction of a world where we all keep driving, keep flying, keep drilling, keep mining, keep living the way we feel entitled to live — and nothing bad happens. So I understand the temptation to say "It’s all a hoax." "It isn’t that bad." "God controls the weather, not us." "The climate is always changing." And so on.

But there’s a real Earth out there, and it really does keep getting hotter. All the denial in the world isn’t going to stop that process.

Our former president didn’t like the fact that he lost the election, so he said he didn’t lose. He said it loud, he said it often. He got other people to say it with him, because they also didn’t like the truth about the election. Some of them came together in a violent mob and invaded our Capitol. People died. If events had played out just a little differently, some of our elected representatives might also have died. But there are real ballots with real marks on them, and when you total them up, he did lose.

Whatever challenge you choose to take on, you’re going to have to battle that plague of wishful thinking. Like: "Racism ended in the 60s." "Evolution is just a theory." "People wouldn’t have to be poor if they just worked harder." "Sexual orientation is a choice." "Whatever the problem, we won’t have to make any hard choices because technology will save us."

If there’s one thing that the world needs right now across the board, it’s a rededication to Truth. Not even just a reluctant resignation to dismal facts, but an active fascination with what is real, the pursuit of Truth with passion, with a religious fervor. At its best, that’s what Unitarian Universalism offers.

All religions talk about Truth, but what most of them really want is to convince themselves and others that the beliefs they already have are true. Unitarianism is one of the few traditions on Earth that is committed to following the Truth wherever it leads. If you look back at the pillars of that tradition through the generations: Channing, Emerson, Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke, John Dietrich, James Luther Adams, Thandeka — you won’t find much consistency in the specifics of their theologies.

William Ellery Channing’s Christianity sounds quaint to me when I read it now. But what rings as clearly today as it did in the 1820s, what shines through in the work of that whole succession of giants I just listed, is a commitment to use the full power of their minds and all the knowledge available in their eras to follow the Truth wherever it leads. That’s the kind of commitment the world needs right now. It doesn’t just need you as a person, or a citizen, or a political partisan. The world needs you as a Unitarian Universalist.

I say the world needs you particularly now. But of course, wishful thinking is not new. It’s a very human trait; we are all tempted by it. But there’s something different in this current era of social media. Today, if there’s something about reality you don’t want to believe, you can easily find an entire community of people who also don’t want to believe it. And then you can support each other in saying that it’s not true. You can make up the most outrageous fantasies and believe in them together. (That’s why I included that QAnon reading.) 

Today, if you want to believe something badly enough, you can. You don’t have to do it by yourself. You can find thousands and thousands of people to believe it with you. Your belief won’t stop Reality from being what it is, but by joining together with others, you can remain comfortable in your denial for a long, long time.

And that temptation, I think, is the biggest problem in the world right now. All our other problems are harder, because so many people believe that they can just imagine a different reality and live there instead of here. If we can’t come to terms with that temptation, I think it’s going to get us all killed someday.

Some people may find it amusing that I offer Unitarian Universalism as an antidote to the problem of people believing whatever they want to believe. Because that’s usually what people say about us. We aren’t bound to follow a leader, a creed, a catechism, or a holy book. That’s the free part of our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. So outsiders imagine our freedom must mean that we all just believe whatever we want.

But people who make that criticism have missed the “responsible” part of the free and responsible search. Because not having an external authority over us also means that there is no authority for us to hide behind. We are responsible for what we believe. If our beliefs, or the actions that we take based on those beliefs, hurt other people, or promote injustice, or bring about an environmental catastrophe, that’s on us. We can’t blame those consequences on our church or on God.

One major way religion does harm in the world today is when it shields people from responsibility for their beliefs. Don’t blame me for these beliefs, religious people say, because I got them from my minister, from my church, from our holy book, from God. So  I have nothing against gays and lesbians, but my church teaches that they are sinners, and that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman. I’m not trying to keep women in their place, but the Bible tells wives to submit to their husbands. 1 Timothy 2:12 says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” That's the Word of God.

Very often, if you push on those statements, you’ll discover that people are not so much submitting to authority as finding an authority to excuse them for believing and doing what they want. Consider this analogy: Maybe you remember how, during the Iraq War, President Bush would claim that he was following the advice of his generals. But if a general gave him advice he didn’t like, he’d fire that general and get another one. So who’s advice was he really following?

Well, something similar goes on with churches. Sometimes, if you question people who simply claim to be following the teachings of their church, you’ll discover that they used to belong to some other church, but left it because it liberalized, and began to tolerate things they didn’t like. When it stopped justifying their particular bigotry, they traded it in for the church they attend now. So who is really responsible there?

Many people who claim to follow the Bible have found ways to get around its inconvenient passages. Matthew 19:21 says “sell all you own and give to the poor”. Who does that?

Leviticus 19:34 says: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Quote that to a fundamentalist who wants to deport all the undocumented immigrants, and he will uncork a whole bottle of interpretation to explain why that passage doesn’t mean what it so obviously does mean. Because that’s how the game is played: When the Bible tells you what you want to hear, then it is the Word of God and must be followed no matter what. But when it tells you something you don’t want to hear, it needs interpretation. Who takes responsibility for that?

Unitarian Universalists don’t play those games. We are responsible for what we believe. We are responsible for what we do. Not our ministers, not our theologians, not the books we read, not even God. We are responsible.

If you take it seriously, that kind of responsibility can be a hard thing to shoulder. And that’s why we do it together. While others may choose a community that supports them in believing what they want to believe, we have chosen a community that keeps us honest. We help each other to carry our responsibility, not to make excuses for putting it down.

And so, if from time to time you fool yourself into forgetting or discounting the crises I listed, or any of the other aspects of Reality it would be pleasant to ignore, count on someone here to remind you before too much time goes by. If you start living inside a self-serving fantasy that harms others and excuses your sense of entitlement and privilege, you can hope to find the kinds of friends here who will call you on it.

After the recent Capitol riot, the UU minister Kristin Grassel Schmidt wrote: “Here’s a deep truth: it is only through real, sometimes very tough accountability that some people will understand that they’ve lost their way. Being held accountable has helped me to learn, and to be and do better, so why would I hold that blessing back from others? Sometimes helping people find their way to truth, love, and justice means insisting that truth is truth — even if it isn’t polite; even if it leads to argument. We may even need to say ‘I love you, but I will never agree to disagree on this. Truth is too important to set aside just because it challenges and upset you’.”

That’s how we roll.

At this particular moment, there’s something else that we need from each other, something I wish I could have brought to you this morning: a sense of the wonder and possibility of this moment. I’m afraid I have painted Reality only as harsh and demanding, because that’s how I’ve been experiencing it recently. But I think that’s more of a symptom than an observation. My reason tells me that Emerson was right long ago when he wrote: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

Reality can be harsh and demanding sometimes, but it also has a depth and complexity that gives it a beauty no fantasy can match. In the long run, time and effort spent trying to grasp and deal with what is really going on — in personal life, in a laboratory, or on the world stage — is always more rewarding than arranging the components of a fantasy to get the outcome you want. There are unexpected dangers and disappointments, but also unexpected opportunities.

And the kind of betrayal that QAnon followers are experiencing now — Reality doesn’t do that to you. You have to meet Reality on its own terms, but it is always there for you.

And finally, I want to point out that if you do have an appreciation of the wonder and possibilities of this moment, then you have special gift to offer. You have something that is in short supply right now, and I encourage you to be generous with it.

But even if, like me, you are feeling tired and worn down these days … Yes, you should take care of yourself. You should do whatever you need to do to stay healthy, both mentally and physically. But at the same time I hope you remember that the world needs Unitarian Universalists right now. It needs us maybe more than it ever has.

Closing Words

The closing words were written by Pascal in the 17th century: “Truth is so obscured nowadays and lies so well established that unless we love the truth we shall never recognize it.”

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

OK, the Election's Over. Now What?

 

a service at First Parish in Billerica
, Massachusetts

November 29, 2020


Reading

From “Who Will We Be Without Trump?” by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.

A friend was all worked up about the possibility of Trump 2024.

“I can’t go through this again!” she cried. But what I heard was that she couldn’t stop going through this. Her contempt for Donald Trump is too finely honed at this point, too essential a part of her psyche. Who would she be — conversationally, politically — without it?

Another friend sent me an email in which he’d worked out the economics of a web-only Trump news channel of the kind that Trump may — or may not — start. With minimal investment, Trump could rake in millions and millions!

We were supposed to be breathing a huge sigh of relief about Joe Biden’s victory. But instead he was finding a fresh source of outrage about Trump.

And here I am writing about Trump — again. It’s a tic, not one I’m proud of. But I’m surrendering to it now to acknowledge that I can’t continue doing so. None of us can. …

On Jan. 20 — praise be! — his presidency will be over. But his hold on us may not end as quickly and cleanly. And his departure from the White House will be more disorienting than some of us realize, posing its own challenges: for Democrats, for news organizations, for anyone who has grown accustomed over these past four years to an apocalyptic churn of events and emotions. …

I … worry that in the wake of Trump’s presidency, which both reflected and intensified the furious pitch of American politics, melodrama may be the new normal. I worry that while Americans are exhausted by it, we’re also habituated to it; that we’ll manufacture it where it doesn’t exist … [and] I worry that my worry is part of the problem.

Sermon

Back in the 90s, my wife Deb was battling breast cancer. I think I’ve told that story here before, so I won’t go into a lot of detail. But for months at a time, I was worried that she might die.

It never got to the point where I expected her to die in the next few days, but she was also never entirely in the clear. Surgery is always risky. And when high-dose chemotherapy had wiped out her immune system, I knew that any infection could proceed pretty quickly. And of course there were constant tests, any one of which might tell us that things had taken a bad turn. Treatment went on for a very intense nine months.

And then it was over. Microscopic cancer colonies might still be in there somewhere, the doctors told us, but maybe not. Come back in six months.

So she was home. She went back to work. We saw our friends, went to restaurants, took vacations. We could make plans now and not worry so much about needing to cancel them. Life could be more or less normal. Though we continued to be nervous, we were relieved, and happy that things were working out so well.

But we also didn’t know what to do with ourselves. For most of a year, we had lived with a sense of desperate intensity, constantly afraid that terrible news was coming, constantly worried that we might make some wrong decision and only later discover its horrible consequences.

And then that intensity was gone, and we had to recalibrate all our standards. Now, “bad news” meant that the movie we wanted to see was sold out. A “bad decision” meant buying the wrong pair of shoes, or misjudging rush hour traffic and being late. That comparative triviality took some getting used to.

Soldiers back from war often report something similar. Suddenly, “screwing up” doesn’t mean somebody is going to die. It just means that you’ve burned dinner, or that the project due Friday won’t get done until Monday. It can be hard to adjust, hard to take seriously the drastically smaller ups and downs of your new life.

In 2011, a New York Times reporter interviewed soldiers returning from Afghanistan and noted the difficulty of “dialing back the hypervigilance that served them well in combat.” A sergeant told the reporter: “The hardest part for me, I guess, is not being on edge.”

People who escape dysfunctional social relationships are often drawn back in. Abused spouses go back to their abusers, ex-members of cults return to the fold, and so on. Bad as they can be, those relationships are intense. Everything that happens in them feels terribly important. Healthier relationships -- where conflict still happens, but shouting and crying are rare, and no one ever winds up in the emergency room -- can seem flat by comparison.

You may wonder where I’m going with this.

Almost a month ago, we had an election. By a margin of more than six million votes, we told Donald Trump to pack his bags. It’s over. At noon on January 20th, he’ll be gone from the White House. There’s a counter on the internet that will tell you to the second just how much longer we have to wait.

When I signed up to do this service, I didn’t know how the election would come out. So I had several possible sermon topics in mind.

If Trump had gotten re-elected, I was planning to do a keep-the-faith talk, about how to maintain hope and endure four more years of a government so hostile to Unitarian Universalist values.

Another possibility was the Great Blue Wave — not just a new president, but a new Congress open to the kind of structural change American democracy needs. That outcome called for a visionary talk. Instead of tinkering around the edges of the status quo, let’s sit down with a blank sheet of paper and think about what we really want for this country.

What actually happened was somewhere in between. In some sense, the Great Blue Wave did roll in. Turnout was enormous, and Joe Biden got more votes than any presidential candidate in American history, over 80 million.

And yet, the turnout on the other side was also impressive. Trump’s losing campaign netted 74 million votes, which is millions more than Barack Obama got in his 2008 landslide, and 11 million more than Trump himself got in 2016. Unless Democrats sweep the runoffs in Georgia, Mitch McConnell will retain control of the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi’s majority in the House will be smaller, not larger. So if there was a Blue Wave, a lot of the red power structure survived it.

To me, the shock of this election was those 74 million Trump voters. I could almost understand people who voted for him the first time: Maybe they didn’t like Hillary Clinton. Maybe they believed that a businessman could run the government more efficiently. Maybe they were just generally frustrated and thought, “What the hell? He’ll shake things up. How bad can he be?”

But by now we’ve had four years to answer that question. We’ve seen Covid kill a quarter million of our fellow Americans. We’ve seen our nation inflict pointless cruelty on helpless people who come to our border looking for asylum — including separating families and then deporting the parents without giving their children back. In hundreds of cases, we’ve even lost the connection between them. We could find Osama bin Laden, but somehow we can’t find these kids’ parents.  

We’ve seen the Justice Department protect allies of the President who commit crimes, and heard him demand that the attorney general arrest his rivals based on conspiracy theories rather than evidence. We’ve seen unprecedented levels of corruption, including millions of dollars of government money flowing into the President’s businesses. We’ve heard no apologies from him when mass shooters repeat his rhetoric to justify slaughtering Hispanics or Jews.

And after all that, 74 million Americans got their ballots and said, “That’s good. I want four years more.” I found that not just surprising, but unsettling. And for a week or so I thought this talk would focus on that issue: How can I come to terms with what the election has demonstrated about my fellow citizens? Because for UUs this is more than just a political challenge. It goes to the heart of our religion.

Our Unitarian principles commit us to democratic process. But democracy has to mean more than just majority rule. Real democracy involves forming a common vision of ourselves as a people, respecting one another, and developing some common core of facts on which to base our national conversation. When either party  says to the other “We outnumber you, so we’re just going to vote you down” that isn’t the kind of democracy we’re looking for. So when President-elect Biden talks about healing America by reaching across the partisan divide, he’s speaking our language.

At a more personal level, our Universalist values tell us that no one is irredeemable. No one should be written off as unworthy of consideration. No matter how many times a person refuses to see the light as we see it, or to recognize what seem to us to be undeniable facts, we can’t stop trying to communicate or trying to understand.

And that’s a challenge right now, because our efforts to understand or communicate meet with so little reciprocity. Monday, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson suggested a reading list for conservatives who want to understand “the opaque and inscrutable Joe Biden voter”. He was, of course, making fun of the mainstream media’s four-year long effort to understand white working-class Trump voters.    

After 2016, he writes, “Reporters and researchers swarmed what seemed like every bereft factory town in the industrial Midwest, every hill and hollow of Appalachia, every windswept farming community throughout the Great Plains. I’m pretty sure television crews did, in fact, bring us reports from every single diner in the contiguous United States — at least, those where at least one regular patron wears overalls.”

“Logically, then, we should put aside those dog-eared copies of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and subject ‘the Biden voter’ to the same kind of microscopic scrutiny. Venture out of your bubble, Trump supporters, and try to understand how most of America thinks.”

Robinson was writing tongue-in-cheek, of course, because he knows that project will never be undertaken. Fox News reporters are not going to hang out at black barber shops in Detroit, or interview white suburban UUs to find out why so many church-going professionals voted against what regular Fox viewers must see as our self-interest.

The situation is quite the opposite, in fact. A popular slogan on Trump campaign merchandise, one repeated at rallies by Don Jr. himself, was “Make Liberals Cry Again”. For many on that side, our distress and disappointment is not an unfortunate byproduct of achieving their positive vision for America. It’s a goal in itself. Making us cry is something to celebrate. How should we respond to that?

I thought that theme might make a good talk, one that I probably need to write even more than you need to hear. I still think so, and maybe it will happen someday. But try as I might to assemble that talk, the voice of inspiration just wouldn’t speak to me; I couldn’t make it come together. And that was my first clue that maybe I was skipping over an important step in the process. Maybe the healing of America needs to start somewhere else.

My second clue came from the post-election media coverage. Ordinarily, when an opposition party wins the White House, the president-elect and the new administration instantly become the center of all attention. Who’s going to be the chief of staff? Who’s going to be in the cabinet? What's the first issue on their new agenda?

Usually, it’s like the Eagles sang: “There’s a new kid in town. Everybody’s talking about the new kid in town.”

But not this time. And like Frank Bruni, I find that I am part of that phenomenon. I write a weekly politics blog, and week after week, even after it became clear that Trump had lost, it’s been hard to talk about anybody else: Why won’t he concede? Would he ever let the Biden transition begin? What’s going on with all those absurd lawsuits? And with his calls to local election officials and Republican legislators in states Biden won? Why is he replacing the leadership in the Pentagon? Is he staging a coup? Can it possibly work? Who’s he going to pardon? Will he try to pardon himself? Will he resign so that Pence can pardon him? On and on and on.

But wait. Isn’t there a new kid in town? Of course there is. And he’s doing the kinds of things presidents-elect typically do. For example, he quickly rolled out his team to deal with our most pressing problem: the pandemic.

But by the standards of the last four years, that event was missing a certain pizzazz. His team was all doctors and public health experts. Not a quack or a charlatan in the bunch. Not even somebody from Biden’s family.

And what did those well-qualified experts tell us to do? Stuff we’d already heard: wear a mask, wash your hands, stay out of crowds. There’s a vaccine coming, and it’s going to work, but it’s not going to be a miracle. Distributing it will be an enormous logistical problem that takes months. They’re going to do the best they can.

Then Biden got up there and repeated the same things. He didn’t promise the virus was going to go away by magic. He didn’t offer us a miracle cure or suggest that we inject bleach. He didn’t yield the podium to the My Pillow guy or some other campaign donor with something crazy to say.

That’s news, I guess. But what can I write about that will grab my readers’ attention? And more important: What am I supposed to feel? If government becomes sane and sensible, where’s my next jolt of adrenaline going to come from?

Eventually it dawned on me: For five years now, pretty much since he came down the escalator in 2015, I’ve been in an abusive relationship with Donald Trump.

Day after day, I have approached my news sources by armoring myself against attack. I have expected that each day I will somehow be insulted or threatened by my President. Or he will do or say something that will make me feel ashamed of the country I love and want to take pride in. In my name, he will attack the environment or harm innocent people or involve me in some other sin that I can never make right.

I came to expect that again and again, he would abuse his power in some way I didn’t see coming, because I had taken the norms of American democracy for granted. I had imagined that somehow the laws and the Constitution would enforce themselves, without any human process that could be disrupted or ignored.

Day after day I would think, “He can’t do that” only to realize that yes, he can. He can set up concentration camps on our border. He can create a masked federal police force and unleash it on the streets of cities where the mayor and the governor don’t want it. He can slow down the Post Office to keep mail-in ballots from arriving in time to be counted. He can threaten to take federal emergency money away from states whose governors aren’t nice enough to him, and foreign aid away from countries that refuse to do him political favors. He can trade pardons for the silence of his co-conspirators. He can shrug off responsibility when his supporters mail pipe bombs to his critics or plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan.

Yes he can.

And because I have so often failed to anticipate what he can do, I have lived for years with a constant sense of dread. What else haven’t I thought of?

That’s what has made his attempts to overturn the election results so riveting. I didn’t see how it could possibly work. But what if I was missing something? What if I was taking for granted some boundary that he could just step over, as he has stepped over so many others?

So for years, I have lived with unrelenting feelings of fear and outrage and shame. An alarm bell has been constantly ringing in my head, telling me that I need to do something, but I don’t know what.

It has been a difficult, terrible four years. But at the same time, it has also been very, very intense.

So after all this, can I really just go back to normal? Or have I gotten, in Frank Bruni’s words, habituated to melodrama. Do I need that regular jolt of adrenaline? If there is no daily outrage, where will my sense of mission come from? What happens to the dragonslayers after the dragon is gone?

On a more mundane level: What’s going to happen to my blog when my readers realize that they don’t need to watch politics as closely as they’ve been doing? When they realize that they can let down their guard for weeks at a time, trusting that the administration will do more-or-less the right thing most of the time? What am I going to write about when the drama of the rise of fascism is replaced by the day-to-day slog of good government?

What we’ve been seeing from the Biden transition these last few weeks is what normal governance is supposed to look like: Presidents choose qualified people, who then say and do sensible things. But watching a well-run government closely is an acquired taste. It’s not the kind of circus we’ve gotten used to.

So it’s a real question: What am I going to do after January 20th, when my emotions are my own again? When my buttons are not repeatedly being pushed? When I am not constantly being trolled? When I can approach the news every morning without already knowing how it’s going to make me feel?

On the one hand, that sounds wonderful. And I believe that eventually it will be wonderful, in more ways than I currently appreciate. That ongoing abuse has probably done me more damage than I realize. And defending myself against it probably has been weighing me down more than I knew.

But on the other hand, experience tells me that this adjustment is going to be a harder than it looks. The psychological wear and tear of the last four years isn’t going to repair itself instantly on Inauguration Day.

President-elect Biden is totally right when he says that America needs to heal its partisan divide. And as a UU, I hope that someday soon I’ll be ready to pitch in and work on that project. But I’m not there yet, and I’m not going to pretend that I am. Before there can be healing between people, I think there needs to be some healing within people.

People like me.

At least that’s where I intend to start.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Hope and Realism in Difficult Times

This talk was delivered on June 21 over Zoom to a combined service of Quincy Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse, Wisconsin. The video above is the dress rehearsal I did earlier that morning.

A couple months ago, at the height of the lockdown, someone I follow on Twitter wondered how doctors can diagnose depression these days.

Think about it: Ordinarily, if you went to your doctor and said, “I hardly ever leave the house. Some days I don't even bother to get dressed. When I do go out, I stay as far away from other people as I can.  I wash my hands obsessively, and I worry constantly about getting sick.” in no time, you’d have a prescription for Prozac or Zoloft or some other anti-depressant. But now the doctor would probably say, "That's normal. That's how we all live."

And that's one way to look at it. Normal life is just different now. But another way is to recognize that normal life has started to resemble depression.

In his memoir Darkness Visible, William Styron describes the inner experience of depression as a constant sense of loss. And that too seems familiar, because we are all suffering losses day after day. Even if you haven’t had the virus yourself, you may have lost a parent, a spouse, a child, or some friend you had imagined growing old with. Maybe you’ve lost a job or a business; many people have.
Nearly of us have missed events that we had been looking forward to: maybe the birth of a grandchild, or a semester studying abroad, or a big June wedding with all the trappings.

On a smaller scale, think about church services. This talk was originally supposed to happen last month in Quincy, as part of my annual spring road trip from New England back to my hometown. That trip usually kicks off with lunch at my favorite diner in Connecticut. There's a museum I like in Columbus, a brew pub in Indianapolis, and a bookstore in Champaign. In Quincy, I see old friends, wander through old haunts, and maybe spend a lazy afternoon on a boat in Mark Twain Lake.

But not this spring. And probably not in the fall. And beyond that, who can say?

Stryon says that the most damaging losses are the ones that we never adequately mourn. But opportunities to mourn are another part of what we’ve lost. Often we can’t be there when our loved ones die. We can’t gather our community together for a funeral where we hold each other’s hands 
or dry each other’s tears.

Some of our losses have gone unmourned because they snuck up on us. Many high school seniors were happy, at first, to get a couple unexpected weeks off school. They were less certain how to feel when they got a few more weeks. And then there was no prom, no graduation, no real chance to say goodbye to people who might be passing out of their lives now.

And the virus, the lockdown, and the ensuing economic troubles are not the only challenges we’ve had to face. We’re in a period of major social unrest that calls attention to our persistent lack of progress against racism. The checks and balances of our government are under unprecedented stress, and I am probably not the only person here who wonders whether this fall's election might be America’s last chance to avoid the kind of authoritarianism that has already replaced democracy in countries like Russia and Hungary and Turkey.

For a lot of reasons, then, it’s been difficult to stay hopeful.

At Valley Forge, General Washington read his troops the Thomas Paine pamphlet that begins, "These are the times that try men's souls." Paine was using "try" in the old sense of “test”, the way an assayer might test a nugget of ore by dropping it in acid. Hard times, Paine was saying, tell you what you're made of.

Hard times also test our religions. Just about any belief system is good enough when things are going well. But in hard times we have to ask: These principles, these beliefs and ideas that we've built our lives around, do they work? Do they stand up to the challenge?

These particular hard times motivated me to revisit what I’ve said and written about hope. I was surprised to discover just how much there is and how far back it goes. I wouldn’t have said that hope is a major theme of my work, but apparently it is.

Satchell Paige advised, “Never look back. Something might be gaining on you.” It’s always risky to review your past writings. You may discover that you were just dead wrong, or that the various things you said here or there don’t assemble into any coherent view at all. It happens.

But fortunately, not this time. I think my various discussions of hope do assemble into a single message, and I find I still believe it. So today I thought I would try to pull it all together.

As so often happens, the way to start is to get the definition right, and in this case that means not confusing hope with optimism. Hope is a way of approaching the present moment, a belief that here and now striving for better things is worthwhile. Optimism, on the other hand, is a claim to know something about the future: that it's going to be OK.

The opposite of optimism is pessimism, which claims to know that the future will go badly. But the opposite of hope is despair, a belief that, in this moment, striving for better things is pointless.

Despair is often a reaction to defeat, and so in December of 2016, a lot of UUs were despairing about the political situation. So I spoke about hope at the UU Church of Palo Alto. I don't think I can improve on this example, so I'll just quote it.

"Pessimism is going to the plate in the ninth inning when your team is behind, assessing the situation, and concluding that you’re probably going to lose. Despair, on the other hand, would tell you not to bother taking your turn at bat, or if you do step into the batter’s box, to let the pitches go by without swinging. Because what’s the point? What difference could it possibly make?”

Being a hopeful batter, on the other hand, doesn’t imply that you know anything one way or the other about how it’s all going to come out. You just go up there and swing, and whatever happens will happen.

It’s true that despair is often associated with excessive pessimism. Whatever you propose doing, a person in despair can explain to you why it won’t work. And so, faced with someone in despair, you may find yourself arguing for optimism. But those arguments usually miss the point, because a depressed person's pessimism is an effect, not a cause. The cause is despair, their intense conviction that striving can't possibly make things better.

Responding to despair by committing yourself to optimism can lead to self-delusion and denial. For example, what if you had believed all the happy things the president has told us about the virus? It won’t come here. Or it will go away, like magic. Soon the economy will recover, and before long, we’ll be back to normal, as if the pandemic never happened.

You would have been disappointed again and again. Each new denial may provide a small jolt of energy, but it's a sugar high that fades as the world refuses to cooperate.

The human condition is that we can never really know what’s going to happen, or whether the future will be good or bad.

So in my view, the path away from despair is not to claim to know things we don't actually know. Instead, we should acknowledge, humbly and courageously, our uncertainty. Whether the subject is the pandemic, the economy, the election, racism, or something in our personal lives, we don't know what's going to happen, and that is precisely why we strive.

Two of my Quincy talks have delved into my personal sources of hope. As you may have read in the newsletter, I write a weekly political blog. And as you probably have noticed for yourself, politics these last few years has not been a source of joy for people with UU values. So friends are always saying to me, "I couldn't immerse myself in the news the way you do, because it's just too depressing."

Both times, trying to address that comment eventually led me to talk about faith, which is a controversial topic to raise among Unitarian Universalists, because many of us do not hear the word “faith” gladly. (So if mentioning “faith” has already made you tense up a little, I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a minute or two, because this discussion of faith may not wind up where you expect.)

One of the things I observe when I examine my own hope, is that it has an irrational aspect to it. And I think that irrationality needs to be there. Because any really resilient hope has to keep you going 
even when it looks like you’re failing.

Like it says in the song “You Gotta Have Heart” from Damn Yankees.
When the odds are saying you’ll never win,

that’s when the grin should start.

First you gotta have heart.

It’s not an entirely rational thing.

If you look closely at just about great development in human history, I think at some point you'll find a person who by all logic should have quit, and just didn't. You may observe the same pattern in your own life. I know I can see it in mine. If I look back at any accomplishment I'm particularly proud of, there was almost always a moment when I was sure it wasn't going to work. And if I had quit then, it wouldn't have.

So we don’t just need rational hope. We need a certain amount of irrational hope. And irrational hope, I believe, needs to have roots in some kind of faith.

But there’s a common mistake here that explains why this whole line of thought has developed such a bad reputation among UUs. Usually what you’ll hear is: “My hope is rooted in my faith. So if you want to have hope too, you need to adopt my faith.” For example, a traditional Christian might say: “I live in hope, because I have faith in a loving God who will not let bad things happen to His people. So that’s what you need to believe.”

Now, I grew up in a religion like that, and trust me, I’ve looked everywhere inside myself to find that kind of faith. And I just don’t have it.

It turns out, you can’t choose to have faith in something just because it would be convenient. St. Paul said, "Faith is a gift of God." And when the Unitarian King John Sigismund of Transylvania proclaimed the Edict of Torda, the first guarantee of religious freedom in post-Reformation Europe, that was his justification: Faith is a gift of God. If God gave your neighbor a different faith than God gave you, you just need to accept that, because nothing can be done about it. If we’re talking about real conviction rather than pretending, other people can't just decide to believe what you believe. You can't force them and they can’t force you.

So rather than suggest that you take up somebody else’s faith and try to fake it until you make it, I recommend that you look deep inside yourself until you find the faith you actually have. Then you can plant your hope there.

The way I think you'll recognize that faith is that you didn't choose it. You can't; you're just stuck with it. "Here I stand," Martin Luther is supposed to have said. "I cannot do otherwise." That's what it feels like when you really find your faith: You're helpless. You can't not believe it.

So those two talks consisted largely of me rummaging through the discard pile of faith and trying things on until I found something that fit me. In that spirit, let me suggest a couple of hope-nurturing faiths you may already have, even if you don't usually call it "faith".

One classically Unitarian faith is a social version of that traditional Christian faith I just mentioned. In other words, maybe you can't believe in a God who is going to make your personal story come out the way you want. But you do believe in something larger, in the progress of humanity, or in what Theodore Parker called “the moral arc of the universe” bending towards justice. To the extent that you can make your story part of that larger story, you can believe in your eventual triumph.

That's what's going on in Martin Luther King's Mountaintop speech, the one he gave the night before he died. He envisions his people arriving in the promised land of freedom, and says, "I may not get there with you. … But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.”
His personal story was going to end the next day. But even anticipating that possibility, he does not view his striving as pointless, because it has been part of a larger effort that he is sure will not fail.

At the 1980 Democratic convention, Ted Kennedy gave a speech that acknowledged the end of his personal presidential ambitions. That could have been a sad moment, but instead it was inspiring, because Kennedy invoked a vision larger than himself: “The work goes on, the cause endures, 
the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

Maybe you have that faith. And if you do, that's a ground you can plant your hope in.

There's also a classically Universalist kind of faith, which rests not so much on God or progress, 
but on people. Universalists believe that no one is beyond redemption, that there is in everyone, somewhere, at least some tiny spark of goodness that could be nurtured and grow.

In times that are dominated by fear, the goodness in people can be hard to see. That little flame of goodness inside you may become something that you hold closely and even hide away, for fear the winds of the world will blow it out. And if everyone gives in to that fear, then none of us can see each other’s goodness, and the world looks very dark.

But even in that darkness, miraculous things still happen. Because, as Michelle Obama put it, "History has shown us that courage can be contagious, and hope can take on a life of its own."

And so, in certain wonderful moments, one person decides not to be afraid any more, and stands there in front of a tank. And another person says, "I can't let her die by herself" and stands with her. And then there are ten people, and then twenty. And then somebody inside the tank says, "I can't just run over all those people." And now you have a revolution.

An oppressive ruler who seemed to have all the power in the world on his side, can fall, just like that, when the contagion of courage and hope gets rolling, and we all discover that the people around us have far more inside them than we had ever imagined.

Maybe you have that faith.

When I introspect, I find that I have both of those faiths, most of the time. And most of the time, that’s enough to keep me doing what I do.

My tiny blog is just a small part of the larger movement of people looking for truth and sharing the kind of reliable information that allows a democratic society to govern itself. And whether I succeed or fail, that movement will continue and will ultimately triumph.

I believe that, most of the time.

Also most of the time, I believe in the goodness of my readers. I believe they want to understand.
They want to be more involved. They want to be more idealistic, have more courage, and take more effective action.

So helping them do that is not just me shining my light into the world, it's uncovering their light, which will shine further and brighter than mine ever could.

And I believe that too, most of the time. But now and then, my skepticism overwhelms those faiths. And I think, "I don't really know which way the moral arc of the universe bends. And while I do believe in the hidden goodness of people, it’s kind of like dark matter. I'm not really sure there's enough of it to keep the Universe from flying apart."

I hate to admit that, because those are beautiful faiths. I miss them when they're gone. But I find I can't hang onto them, at least not all the time. And that's a problem, because a faith that you only hold most of the time will fail you at precisely the moments when you need it most.
So I had to look deeper. And when I did, I eventually found something that is maybe not as grand, 
but is much simpler: I believe that knowing is better than not knowing, that understanding is better than not understanding, and that if you can pass your understanding on to someone else, you've done a good thing.

In an objective sense, I don't know that those statements are any more convincing than the other faiths I've talked about. But they turn out to be the faith I have. Knowing, understanding, explaining -- those are good things. My skepticism can't touch that, because I can't not believe it.

I don't know where that came from. I understand why St. Paul described faith as a gift of God, because I don't remember anybody instilling that faith in me, and don't believe I ever chose it. I'm just stuck with it. Here I stand.

And it keeps me going, no matter what happens.

So what point do I want you to take home from this? It's not that you should share my faith or share my hope or do what I do. But I do strongly recommend that you take your own journey of introspection, until you find the unique faith that you happen to be stuck with. That is a place where your hope can take root.

And one more thing: Hope doesn't just need roots, it needs branches. There needs to be something in your life, something you devote effort to, that expresses your unique faith and your unique hope.

Now, once you have that thriving hope with roots and branches, I wish could promise you that everything will turn out OK, that you'll necessarily succeed in what you do. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. You could still fail. All your efforts could come to nothing. You may swing hard at that last pitch, and not hit it.

But here's what I can promise. If you nurture a hope that's rooted in your own faith, whatever it turns out to be, and that expresses itself in your life, however you manage to do that, despair will have a hard time claiming you. And whether your efforts succeed or fail, I doubt you will ever be sorry that you tried.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Have Yourself a Very UU Christmas

presented at the Unitarian Church of Billerica, Massachusetts on December 15, 2019

Opening Words

The opening words were said by Charlie Brown: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Readings

On the day before Thanksgiving, a piece called “I am not blessed” by Jennifer Furner appeared on the Huffington Post web site. Here’s a part of it:
Now that I’m in my 30s, I often reflect on who I’ve become and where my life is going. I’m lucky to be privileged enough to have the time and means to visit this beautiful property a few times a year to clear my head, do some writing and commune with nature.

I wish to show my appreciation for everything I have and all the things I’ve learned so far. But how? And to whom or what do I give thanks?

As I hike across the prairie, away from the stone chapel, I consider the upcoming holiday designated to giving thanks. I think of my family — my brother, our spouses, our children, and my mother — soon to be gathered around a table full of delectable foods.

Our Catholic upbringing ingrained in us since childhood that dinner is off-limits until we hold hands, bow our heads and my mother recites “Bless us, O, Lord, and these, Thy gifts,” or my brother offers a freestyle list of how we have all been blessed by God. I hold their hands, but instead of bowing my head and closing my eyes, I simply wait. I appreciate that they are thankful, and I’m thankful for the same things they are. But sitting at the table, eyes open, mouth closed, I appear ungrateful to them.

And then Christmas arrives soon after. Some people go out of their way to remind us that “Christ is the reason for the season,” and insist the proper way to greet people is with a “Merry Christmas” instead of the more inclusive “Happy Holidays.” Their insistence that all gratitude and celebration must be devoted to a Christian God excludes not only people of other faiths, but atheists like me; it inflicts a guilt of sorts on those who just want to enjoy the snow, the trees, the twinkle lights. They dismiss our perspective by telling us it’s not enough to wish each other a happy holiday season ― thanks are always owed to God.

But my experience after leaving Catholicism proves otherwise.

Even when God is gone, gratefulness remains.
The second reading is from an article that appeared three years ago in The Jewish Voice: “You are the Light, You are the Miracle” by Rabbi David Bibi.  It contained this interesting paragraph:
The Talmud teaches that Adam created in Late September noticed during the first three months of his life how the days slowly became shorter and shorter – He said: Woe to me, because of my sin the world is getting darker … and will return to a world of darkness and confusion. This must be my death sentence.  Instead of accepting this imminent fate, Adam overcame his depression and took upon himself to fast, pray and repent. After eight days, Adam noticed that the days indeed had begun to lengthen. Realizing that this is ‘minhago shel olam’ [the way of the world or nature], he made a celebration for eight days giving thanksgiving to the Almighty.  The next year, he made these days holidays.

The Rabbis explain that Adam had good intentions when making these holidays; however his offspring turned them into holidays of … nature worship. The Talmud tells us that this is the origin of Saturna and Kalenda 
which we explained eventually became Christmas and New Years.

Sermon

Christmas, as we all know, is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus.

But whether you consider yourself a Christian or not — and UUs vary widely in how we relate to Christianity —it’s also a holiday we can’t ignore. From Thanksgiving on, and perhaps even sooner, we are assaulted by Christmas from all sides: the music, decorations, office parties, Christmas-themed movies and TV specials, expectations about gifts and dinners.

There is no getting away from Christmas. So what can we do with it?

Christians often remind us not to let the holiday drift away from what they see as its original purpose. “Keep Christ in Christmas,” appears on billboards or church signboards or in public service announcements. “Jesus,” we’re told “is the reason for the season.”

That message shows up in popular culture as well. When Charlie Brown, at the depth of his pre-holiday frustration, pleads “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus responds by reciting Luke’s account of angels appearing to shepherds, announcing “tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord”. The angels close with “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.”

“That,” Linus concludes, “is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Without the birth of Jesus, the cartoon seems to say, Christmas is basically empty, and can only devolve into some kind of materialistic nightmare: commercial Christmas, with its greed for presents and the constant urging to buy more and more; or high-pressure Christmas, where there are too many things to do, too many people to see, too much food to cook, and the persistent feeling that there is a perfect  Christmas, a way things are supposed to be, but that you are just not up to making it happen.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Grinch hates Christmas, and believes he can bring an end to it if he steals all of Whoville’s presents and decorations and preparations for feasting. And though the Grinch is to that point the villain of the story, I wonder how many of the stressed-out parents who watch that cartoon with their children each year secretly feel the same temptation: to take every part and parcel of Christmas up to the top of Mount Crumpit to dump it.

But at that point in the story something interesting happens, or rather, doesn’t happen: No one mentions Jesus. What turns the Grinch around, what makes his heart grow three sizes — presumably from unusually small to moderately large — is that the Whos down in Whoville, who have no presents, no decorations, and nothing to feast on, still come out of their homes, join hands, and sing.

It’s not the chorus of angels that Linus describes, it’s the voice of the community. Not the promise of peace and good will in Christ’s millennial kingdom, but the offer of human good will, right here, right now. “Christmas Day is in our grasp, so long as we have hands to clasp.”

So the Grinch is turned around not just “without packages, boxes, or bags”, but also without Jesus. How could it be so?

The Grinch is far from the only example of a character whose Christmas miracle has little to do with Christianity. An angel appears in the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”, but not to announce the birth of the Savior, or to assure George Bailey that the sacrifices he has made for others will win him a better life in Heaven. Instead, the angel shows George that his Earthly life has been meaningful in itself. There’s a profound difference between the Bedford Falls George loves and the hellish vision of Pottersville the angel shows him. But the cause of that difference isn’t Jesus, it’s George Bailey.

And of course the patron saint of humanistic Christmas stories is Ebenezer Scrooge, whose tale has been told and retold in hundreds of different ways since Charles Dickens first imagined him in 1843. Again, there is a supernatural element to the story, but not a particularly Christian one. The message the ghosts bring to Scrooge isn’t the saving grace of Jesus Christ, it’s that death is coming one way or another, and that love is the best thing we can do with life while we have it.

These stories are just part of large humanistic Christmas tradition that has built up over the last 200 years or so. Without a lot of fanfare, a meaningful humanistic holiday of Christmas has formed alongside the Christian holiday, to the point that it is now possible — in spite of what Linus says — to have a deep Christmas experience with or without Christianity.

Today I want to talk about how that happened and why it works. And if I dive into this topic in a little more detail than might otherwise be necessary, it’s because I have an ulterior motive: I’m coming back here on Palm Sunday to talk about what UUs can do with Easter.

I find Easter to be a far more difficult holiday than Christmas, largely because the secular culture has yet to humanize Easter the way it has humanized Christmas. There is no Scrooge of Easter, no Grinch, no wonderful life. In 1897, The New York Sun assured eight-year-old Virginia that Santa Claus exists “as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist”. But there is no comparable defense of the Easter Bunny, and it’s hard to imagine one.

So while Easter can be a meaningful holiday for Christians and an enjoyable one for children, it’s much harder to say what message it has for the rest of us. How can Easter work with or without Christianity? That’s a hard question, which is why I want to take on the easier one first: How did we come to have the option of a meaningful Humanist Christmas?

I think the example of Humanist Christmas teaches us three basic principles about how you build a new holiday inside an older one: First, the new holiday shouldn’t fight the old holiday head-on. Creating a humanistic version of Christmas didn’t involve building an anti-Christmas that debunks the story of Jesus or inverts the Christian message.

Dickens’ “Christmas Carol”, for example, is quite the opposite of skeptical. I imagine that many Christians of 1843 saw it as an affirmation of their tradition, not the beginning of a rebellion against it. Similarly, Christians can feel their values affirmed, not denied, by the selfless life of George Bailey.

But it would be hard to get away from the Christian nature of Christmas if every tradition for celebrating the holiday were tightly integrated with the Christian mythos and Christian theology. So the second principle of new holidays is to recognize just how few of the old holiday’s traditions
 have any connection to what the holiday claims to be about. Lacking that connection, those traditions can fit the new holiday just as well as the old one.

For example, the Bethlehem story is fundamentally about a poor nuclear family spending the night in a stable because they are cut off from any friends or relatives who might take them in. And yet somehow the central celebration of Christmas is a great feast shared by the entire extended family. That bountiful Christmas dinner might be the one time all year when you see all the cousins and uncles and grandchildren in the same place.

A gathering like that says more about our culture than it does about Christianity. We have that big family dinner not because Mary and Joseph did, but because that’s how we like to celebrate. Even if you were raised in a devout Christian family, chances are that most of the Christmas traditions you remember fondly — the foods you make, movies you watch, how you open presents, and so on — have very little Christian content.

Many of the traditions now associated with Christmas date back to holidays that preceded Christmas. Ten years ago, the journal History Today published an article with this first paragraph: “It was a public holiday celebrated around December 25th in the family home. A time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. But it wasn’t Christmas. This was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival.”

The poet Catullus referred to Saturnalia as “optimo dierum”,  literally “the best of days”, or, translating more loosely “the most wonderful time of the year”. Similarly, the Yule log and evergreens come from a Teutonic winter holiday. I could go on, but you get the idea.

The Christian mythos extended itself to capture and explain these traditions — we give presents to commemorate the gifts of the Magi, the star of the top of the tree is the star of Bethlehem, and so on — but often the traditions were there before Christianity came along to explain them. So nothing should stop us from re-interpreting these traditions in new ways that harmonize with our beliefs and are meaningful to us.

The third principle of new holidays is that most holidays have their roots in shared human experiences that go back much further than any recorded history. The new holiday can tap into those primordial roots just as authentically as the old holiday does. In the case of Christmas, Saturnalia, Hanukkah, the Feast of Saint Lucy, and many other December holidays, it’s clear what that primordial experience was: the Winter Solstice.

Perhaps you were amused by the Talmudic myth in the reading, of Adam experiencing the shortening days of Autumn for the first time, and fearing that the Sun would go away forever. But if you put yourself back into the mindset of hunter-gatherer tribes, that is not such a crazy thought.

We spend so much our lives indoors that it is hard to recapture ancient peoples’ experience of the sky and the Sun. The Sun was not just their source of light and warmth, it was their compass and their timepiece. They would have paid great attention to its path across the sky. In particular, each Fall they would have noticed how that path was sinking.

In mid Summer, when the Sun is strongest, it climbs high into the sky and passes almost directly overhead. But as Fall progresses, the Sun seems to get increasingly feeble. It rises later and sets sooner. Its path across the sky gets closer and closer to the horizon, as if it no longer had the strength to climb all the way up.

At some point, just about every intelligent child must have had the same thought as Adam: Is the Sun’s path going to keep sinking? In another few weeks, will the Sun just vanish over the horizon and be gone forever?And the answer to those questions could not have been very satisfying. Remember, at this point no one knows how the tilt of the Earth’s axis causes the seasons as the planet orbits the Sun. No one communicates with people in the opposite hemisphere, who can verify that the Sun is still quite strong where they are. And to the primitive eye, there is no obvious reason for the Sun to turn around where it does. It’s not like it bounces off some visible barrier.

No, the only answer available at that point in history is that the Sun will start climbing higher in the sky again because it always does. The Winter Solstice has never failed before. We’ve got it timed out; we know when it’s supposed to happen. Wait and see.

But given that the question is whether all of life will end in cold and darkness, an answer like “It’s never done that before” is only reassuring up to a point. There’s a first time for everything, after all.

So I imagine that at this time of year, even the oldest, wisest people in the village, the ones who had seen Winter Solstice arrive on schedule dozens and dozens of times, would study the sky with a certain anxiety. It’s one thing to know that it always happens this way. But to see that it actually is happening yet again — that the Sun has already started to gain strength and move higher in the sky than it did yesterday — that must have been a tremendous relief. Of course you’d have a big celebration.

It’s striking to realize just how many of the themes of Christmas are already baked in to the ancient experience of the Winter Solstice. That the Sun turns for no reason we can see, that it stops moving away from us and starts coming back, can only be described as a miracle. And so the Winter Solstice reaffirms the possibility of miracles. The season of the Solstice becomes a time of magic, a time when anything might happen.

The turning of the Sun easily becomes a symbol of all the other things we wish would turn around. Things that have been getting worse for a very long time may, for no reason that we can see, turn around and start getting better. If the Sun can turn around, who knows what else might turn around? And so the Winter Solstice becomes a season of hope.

And let’s picture that hope in a little more detail. Because while the Solstice may be the darkest time of the year, it usually isn’t the coldest or most dire. January and February will be colder, and very end of Winter, when the harvest surplus is long gone, the slow animals have already been caught, and every bush and tree in the forest has been picked over — that will be the time of greatest peril.

But through those trying times, the Sun will give people hope. Because however difficult the rest of Winter might be, the days will slowly but steadily get longer. The Sun is gaining strength, and that’s how you know that the hard times will not last forever. Eventually the Sun will win, and there will be Spring and Summer and the harvest.

What is celebrated on the Solstice then, is not that we are saved from Winter immediately, but that the process of our salvation has begun. So if your religion includes a myth of the Divine Child, the one who cannot save us yet, but who will save us when he is grown, there is a natural time for that child to be born. To the Romans, December 25 was the feast of Sol Invictus, the invincible Sun. Mithras, the Persian savior/god who became the central figure of a mystery cult popular among the Roman legions, was born on December 25. The Bible does not say when Jesus was born. But when the early Christians decided to celebrate a birthday, it was clear what day that had to be.

Those three principles put us in a position to list the content of a humanist Christmas, and to see how it comes to have that content authentically — not stealing it from Christianity, but harvesting it from the same sources.

Humanist Christmas is a time of celebration. It is a time for gathering together family and friends, for feasting and decorating and exchanging gifts. It is a time of generosity, both materially and spiritually. It is also a time of hope, and a time to make one more try at something, not because you’re sure it will work, but because you never know. Sometimes things turn around for no reason that you can see, so it’s worth creating the opportunity.

In particular, it’s worth sending out one more invitation and making one more phone call, even if you think the answer will be no. It’s worth trying to heal divisions, because the people who seem lost to you, the ones who have been estranged from you or the family or the community for a very long time, might, this time, turn around and start coming back. No one expected the Grinch to carve the roast beast. Scrooge’s nephew Fred never stopped inviting the old man for Christmas, and then one year he came, and kept coming every year after.  Dickens doesn’t tell us whether Fred ever understood why.

Or perhaps you are the one who has been estranged for too long. Perhaps it is you who needs to turn around, and, this year, come home for the holidays.

And finally, Humanist Christmas is also a time to think big, to reach beyond what you know is possible and to dream of things that may or may not be possible. Saving the world. Peace on Earth. If the Sun can turn around, then maybe the human race can turn around too.

I claim that is a complete holiday. Nothing is missing. There is no Jesus-shaped hole in it, unless you bring an expectation of Jesus with you.

But if you do, that brings me around to my final point. The title of talk promised not a Humanist Christmas, but a UU Christmas, which is a bit different. Because one of the essential features of Unitarian Universalism is that you get to be exactly as Christian as you need to be. No more and no less.

Our closing hymn, which we’ll sing in a few minutes, provides a good example of a 19th-century Unitarian being exactly as Christian as he needed to be, and using a traditional Christmas motif to say something that he believed the people of his day needed to hear.

“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” has become a Christmas standard. And if you only sing the first verse, you might think it’s yet another song about angels appearing to shepherds. But the music belies that interpretation, because it’s not celebratory, like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or triumphant like “Joy to the World”. Although the melody is lovely, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear a tinge of sadness that you won’t find in other Christmas carols.

There’s a reason for that. The year was 1849, and the United States had just fought a war for territory, the Mexican War. To many, that war was a disappointing sign that America had lost its idealism and was on its way to becoming a war-fighting empire like all the other empires.

And so, when the Unitarian minister Edmund Hamilton Sears sat down to write his carol, what he has in mind wasn’t to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It was to lament all the wisdom and all the chances for peace that humanity has squandered over the centuries. In short, Sears didn’t just rehash a Christmas tradition for its own sake, he made it work for him.

That’s what we should do too. If it works for you to make Jesus the reason for the season, you absolutely should. If it honestly fills you with joy to sing that the Lord has come, then sing away. If your Christmas wouldn’t be complete without angels, and wise men and shepherds, by all means have angels and wise men and shepherds. If God feels closer to you at Christmas than at any other time of the year, then you would be foolish to ignore that feeling.

But if, the other hand, you find the Christian aspects of Christmas to be meaningless, or even off-putting, then you can let them go without guilt or regret. Because there is plenty of holiday still to celebrate.

A Unitarian Universalist Christmas means being exactly as Christian as you need to be, to have the fullest, deepest, most meaningful Christmas you can.

Benediction

In the words of Dr. Seuss: “Christmas Day is in our grasp as long as we have hands to clasp. Christmas Day will always be just so long as we have we.”
 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Spirit of Democracy

presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
October 27, 2019

Opening Words

The opening words are from the sermon John Winthrop preached in 1630 on board the Arbella, to the colonists on their way to found the new settlement of Boston.
We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.

Children's Story: Stone Soup

One day a traveler came to a village, pulling a cart behind him. In the wagon was an enormous cooking pot, and inside the pot was … nothing.

As he approached the village green, villagers came up to him, looked in the wagon, looked in the pot, and said, “You don’t seem to have any food with you, so I think you’ve come to the wrong place. This is a poor village in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. Many are hungry, and no one has extra food to offer you. You should just keep going, and maybe you’ll have better luck down the road.”

But the traveler said, “You mistake my purpose. I didn’t come to ask you for food. I am going to cook a wonderful soup in this pot, and offer a bowl to anyone who wants it.”

Well, there were indeed many hungry people in the village, so that offer drew their attention. “But what are you going to put in your soup?”

To which the traveler replied: “Watch and see.”

So everyone watched him as he filled the pot with water from the village well, and gathered wood and started a fire. And as the water began to heat, he took something out of his cloak and unwrapped it: a stone.

“This is a magic stone,” he said. “Exactly how I obtained it is a tale that perhaps I might tell some other time. But for now just let me tell you how the enchantment works: Whenever I am hungry (and I have to admit I am hungry now) all I have to do is boil this stone, and it produces stone soup, which is the most filling and nutritious soup I have ever eaten. The stone will fill any vessel with soup, and that’s why I carry a pot so much bigger than I need for myself, so that I have plenty to share with others.”

The villagers weren’t sure what to make of this story, but they watched as the traveler stirred and sniffed and reminisced about all the wonderful times he had eaten stone soup. As they listened to him, their mouths watered and their stomachs growled.

“And all you need is that stone?” someone asked.

“Well,” admitted the traveler, “by itself stone soup is filling and nutritious, as I said. But if you add just a little cabbage, it becomes tasty as well.”

To everyone’s surprise, one of the village’s poorest and hungriest women said: “I have a few cabbages hidden away.”

“These will do marvelously,” said the traveler as he cut them up and added them to the pot.

Now the air was full of the smell of cooking cabbage, which drew all the rest of the villagers out to the green. “Stone soup with cabbage is indeed quite tasty,” the traveler said. “But if it also has a few carrots, it becomes downright delicious.”

“I have a few carrots,” another villager said.

Once the carrots were added, the aroma became irresistible, and the villagers began to volunteer. “Do you think some potatoes would help?”

“I have just a bit of salted pork.”

“Corn,” offered another. “Salt and pepper.”

The traveler praised each offering as exactly what the soup needed, until one by one, every household in the village had added something to the pot. With each ingredient, his claims for the soup grew, until he declared that even the King himself would not enjoy such a fine soup that day.

When the traveler pronounced the soup done, he ladled out a bowl to each and every villager. And as he scraped out the last of the soup for himself, there at the bottom of the pot was the stone. He very carefully picked it up, cleaned it off, wrapped it up, and put it back in his cloak for the next time he might need stone soup.

And as the villagers ate, they all agreed that this was the most wonderful soup they had ever tasted, and every word the traveler had said about it was perfectly true.

Readings 

Like many people who grew up in Quincy, my ancestry is almost entirely German. In most situations, that puts my American-ness beyond question. Nobody sees my presence in this country as a problem, or claims that my German background makes my loyalty dubious, or tells me to go back where I came from.

Today, Pennsylvania Dutch — Dutch being a corruption Deutsche, meaning German — is a tourist-attracting species of Americana, and the entire town of Frankenmuth, Michigan is basically a Bavarian theme park.

But it’s worth remembering that German immigrants weren’t always considered so benign and charming. In a letter to Peter Collinson written in May of 1753, Ben Franklin expressed his concerns about the cultural threat the rising wave of German immigration posed to the English Pennsylvania colony:

Advertisements intended to be general are now printed in Dutch and English; the Signs in our Streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only German: They begin of late to make all their Bonds and other legal Writings 
in their own Language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our Courts, where the German Business so encreases that there is continual need of Interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will be also necessary in theAssembly, to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say; In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.


In time, though, Germans and a variety of other immigrants became acceptable, and de Tocqueville observed 
that Americans were united more by political ideas than by a particular ethnicity or religion. Those ideas have sometimes been called “The American Creed”. And though that creed has never been codified, It is expressed in some canonical documents that we all recognize. I have collected a few here.

From the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, 
Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.


The Preamble of the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, 
provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

From the Gettysburg Address:

We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


From “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Early chapters of Samantha Power’s autobiography The Education of an Idealist tell what it’s like to pass through that golden door. If you’ve ever seen her on TV, you may not have guessed that this former Ambassador to the United Nations is an immigrant, but she came from Ireland at the age of 8, and wasn’t naturalized until adulthood. She describes the ceremony like this:

During our collective Oath of Allegiance, we pledged, ‘I will support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’
Looking around the courtroom, seeing emotion ripple across the faces of those whose hands were raised, I was struck by what America meant as a refuge, and as an idea. All of us gathered that morning had reached the modern Promised Land.
We weren’t giving up who we were or where we came from; we were making it American.
I hugged an elderly woman from Central America on my left, and a tall man from Russia to my right. We were all Americans now.

The Spirit of Democracy

I don’t think it’s news if I tell you that democracy is in trouble. A wave of authoritarian populism is sweeping the world, undermining and ultimately ending democracy in all but name in countries like Russia, Turkey, and Hungary. Other countries, like Poland, are moving in that direction. Authoritarian parties centered on the old fascist themes of blood and soil, are increasingly competitive in places like France and Germany, where democracy once seemed solidly established.

This morning I want to take a different tack than I often do in my weekly political blog, which I know some of you read. Rather than focus on the immediate crisis, which often involves denouncing whatever the outrage of the week might have been, I want to take a longer view. This morning I want to call your attention not so much to what is attacking democracy 
as what has made us vulnerable to that attack, and what we will need to rebuild if we make it through the current challenge. Not what is tearing democracy down, but what makes democracy work in the first place?

In any organism, health is more mysterious than disease, and I believe that’s the case here. Some very important factors in the health of democracy aren’t well understood or appreciated, even by people like Unitarian Universalists who value democracy highly.

One big misunderstanding, I’m sorry to say, is embedded in our Fifth Principle, the one that commits us to affirm and support “the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” It’s the only mention of democracy in our principles, and from it you might get the idea that the essence of democracy is process: Hold elections, 
pass laws, list some basic rights in your constitution, and you must be a democracy.

Again and again, that misconception has led the United States astray in our “nation-building” efforts overseas. The European powers made similar mistakes when they gave their colonies independence after World War II.

Because if you are powerful enough, you can step in from the outside and install a process in some foreign land. You can convene a constitutional convention, oversee an election, and guarantee that the votes are counted fairly. So when you leave, there is an elected government operating under a constitution that promises human rights and the rule of law. What more could anyone ask?

And yet, again and again, those externally established democratic processes have failed. Because processes are dead unless some spirit animates them. Without the spirit of democracy, the processes of democracy become an elaborate performance with no underlying reality, like a ritual to honor a god no one believes in.

I don’t want to get too mystical about this, so I should give a concrete example of a living democratic process I have experienced myself, and which you may have experienced as well. Several years ago I served on a jury in a drug case. In the beginning I wasn’t that excited to be there, and I doubt that my eleven colleagues were either. Who is, really? I doubt many people get the summons and say, “Oh goody! I get to do jury duty!”

But it didn’t take long for the ritual of the court to work its magic on us. Surprisingly quickly, it became real to us that in this particular time and place, we were the community. It was up to us to balance the interest of the state in enforcing its laws against the right of the accused not to lose his liberty without a good reason.

We had no special reason to care. None of us knew the defendant or were victims of his alleged crime. But we did care, and we did our job well. We listened intensely, both to the witnesses and to each other. We deliberated seriously, and several of us changed our minds.

But if we had not caught the spirit, it would have been easy to treat that trial as a meaningless performance. We might not have bothered to pay attention and instead just voted our preconceived opinions about crime or the drug laws or the police or the people who live in that neighborhood.

We did not do that. And even though our verdict was guilty, if I am ever on trial, I hope that I get a jury like us.

There are times when I believe that Vladimir Putin and the other new authoritarians understand democracy better than we do. Because they have very adeptly focused their attacks on the spirit of democracy rather than its processes. In countries where they take control, democratic processes aren’t swept away; they are hollowed out, and become empty rituals.

The formalities of campaigns and elections continue, but without any genuine attempt to seek the consent of the governed. The news media remains in the private sector and looks independent, but all major outlets are owned by allies of the government. Rituals of justice are still performed, but investigators, prosecutors, and judges all owe their loyalty to the Leader rather than the law.

If you give voice to the People’s frustration, you probably won’t be whisked away to a gulag in the dead of night. Instead, you will be investigated for corruption and sentenced to prison in an orderly fashion. You will experience all the trappings of justice, but not the reality.

The worldview that underlies these empty rituals is one of deep cynicism: Politicians are all corrupt. Businessmen are thieves. Science is fake. News is propaganda. Justice is a fairy tale. Fair play is irrelevant; all that matters is who wins.

Worst of all, none of this is seen as the debasement of higher values. It’s just how life is. There are no real democracies, no common truths on which we might base our discussions, no shared principles that might guide our deliberations. Only children believe in such things.

Having invoked that cynicism, it’s time for another positive example, this time from a different document out of the American canon, the Mayflower Compact, signed by the first pilgrims on their way to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Compact is pretty thin on process. The pilgrims promise “to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient”. In other words, they pledge to come up with some kind of process eventually.

But they do something else in this document, something that usually doesn't happen in the doomed democracies defined by lines some colonial power drew on a map. They pledge to “covenant and combine ourselves together 
into a civil body politic”. They promise that those processes they intend to establish someday will be “just and equal”, 
as well as “meet and convenient for the general good of the colony.”

What the pilgrims are pledging, in other words, is to be a People together. Rather than submit to some external authority, they commit to govern themselves. And rather than use that government as a way for some to exploit others, they pledge to treat each other as equals and seek the general good.

That’s what’s missing when the processes of democracy become empty: a covenantal relationship among people. Democracy is alive not when we are loyal to freedom of the press or one man one vote or trial by jury. All those abstractions only come alive when we are loyal to each other, and to everyone who joins our covenant. Everything else flows from that.

“Delight in each other,” John Winthrop told his flock. That’s where it starts. When we value each other, when we feel responsible for each other, and accountable to each other, then the spirit of democracy will animate our processes.

And that’s where the attack of the authoritarian forces has been most intense. When Putin launched an information war against us, the stolen identities and fake social media accounts weren’t used to push his philosophy and his point of view, the way that the Soviets might have done a generation ago. Instead, all that influence was used to turn us against one another, to feed our prejudices and build our rage against our own countrymen. The point wasn’t that Russia is good and Putin is your savior. It was that other Americans are out to get you. They hate what you stand for, and they want to take what’s yours.

The would-be authoritarians in our own country are trying to hollow out citizenship itself. That naturalization ceremony that felt so meaningful to Samantha Power, that made her hug the Central American woman and the Russian man because “We were all Americans now.” — they want to turn that into an empty ritual as well.

So what if you have been naturalized? If you are the wrong color or religion, your American-ness will always be suspect. If you make too much noise, if you get in the way, you still might be told to go back where you came from. The birthright citizenship guaranteed by the 14th Amendment is “a loophole” for “anchor babies”. Our asylum laws aren’t really laws either, they are “loopholes” for obtaining residency.

Some go so far as to claim that the United States should be an ethnostate for white Christians. Others aren’t willing to put it quite so bluntly, but they casually throw around terms like “real Americans”. Maybe in some technical sense you are a “citizen”. Maybe the law recognizes you as a “voter”. But are you a “real” American?

And how can an election be legitimate if the legal electorate votes differently than the “real” Americans? Wouldn’t it then make sense to discourage the “unreal” Americans, the fake and phony beneficiaries of our empty citizenship rituals, from voting at all? Wouldn’t it make sense to limit their power by packing them into gerrymandered districts and making them wait in long lines to vote? And so the processes of democracy become hollow.

Time for another positive example: This last year, I’ve had a fascinating new window into a living democracy. Deb and I recently moved to Bedford, Massachusetts, the town where we’ve been attending church for the last 25 years. Bedford is a town of about a third the size of Quincy, and it is a direct democracy. We have a professional town manager who runs the executive side of government, and a board of selectman to oversee that manager. But once or twice a year we hold a town meeting that any registered voter can attend. That meeting functions as the town legislature.

And so we, the citizens, wield the political power — not theoretically, by voting for representatives who may or may not do what we want, but directly. If you wonder why the middle school needs a new furnace, or question why we replace police cars as often as we do — you show up and ask, and someone has to answer you. If you want to do things differently, you speak up. And if enough of your neighbors agree with you, it’s changed, right then and there. You don’t have to plead to some higher authority, you just have to persuade your equals.

Typically, a few hundred people show up, and it usually takes a couple evenings to get through the town’s business. The discussions we have are very different from the ones in Congress or the state legislatures. There’s no point in posturing, because you didn’t win an election to gain this power and you don’t need to win another one to keep it. You just show up; it’s your right as a citizen. And while it’s easy to imagine parliamentary maneuvers that would screw the process up, nobody does them. Because we want to get done with our business, and because it’s a small town and we have to live together.

The Unitarian churches I’ve belonged to also work by direct democracy, and in general I’ve observed that the democracy is working best when the process looks terrible. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a contested election for the Board. The challenge is always on the other side: finding enough candidates to fill the slots.

Imagine if the national government worked that way. You’d get a call in the middle of dinner and someone would say, “Do you want to be senator? I know it’s short notice, but Dick and Tammy don’t want to do it any more and we really need somebody.”

Think about why we get away with that kind of process. When a church is working well, the members share a broad consensus about what the church is and what it’s trying to do. When you have that kind of consensus, it almost doesn’t matter who holds the offices. Ancient Athens filled some of its offices by lot, figuring that any random citizen would make more-or-less the same choices.

So now I think I’m ready to start answering some of the questions I posed at the beginning: What does a healthy American democracy look like? What do we need to rebuild once we get through the current crisis? I think we need to renew our allegiance to our unwritten national covenant, to restore our sense of who belongs to that covenant and what binds us together as a people, and regain a shared sense of what America is.

I don’t think we need to invent much to do this. Most of the answers are waiting to be recovered from the American canon.

At the time of the Founders, the problem was to get enough people to come here, not to keep them out. And so we didn’t have immigration laws worth mentioning until after the Civil War. There was no such thing as documented or undocumented. If you showed up, obeyed the laws, and managed to survive a few years, you were in.

We may not want to follow the Founders that far. But as of old, we need to recognize that Americans are united not by race or religion, but by a political creed that is already sitting there in Jefferson’s Declaration: Everyone comes into this world with equal worth and dignity. Everyone has the right to live, to steer their own course through life, and to try to thrive as best they can. The power of government derives not from God or the ancestors or any other external source, but from the consent of the governed.

If you’re here, and you believe those things, and if you’re willing to cast your lot with the rest of us, to defend our lives and our rights the way we defend yours, then I think you’re as American as anybody else.

By the way, you might have wondered why I picked “Stone Soup” for the story. Over the years, America has been described by various metaphors: a city on a hill, a melting pot, a tossed salad, and others. Well, I want to suggest that America is a stone soup.

What each villager has been doing wrong in that story, what the traveler tricks them out of, is imagining that the only food left is their own personal stash. They’ve been looking at each other as more mouths to feed, and not as people who might have something to offer.

That’s been the special magic that has set America apart from the other nations. We have always been open to the possibility that people might have something to offer, even if we can’t see right away what it is. We don’t want to lose that magic.

The creed that unites us also goes a long way to define what America is: a place of liberty and equality, where people have the opportunity to apply their talents and become whatever they have it in themselves to be. And to that I would add one more idea, which I would trace back to George Washington’s Farewell Address: America is a kind and generous member of the community of nations — willing to help, standing with others seeking the same kinds of freedoms we want for ourselves, but not lusting after empire or dominance.

But as I paint that patriotic picture, I can anticipate your objections: How can we Americans square such a positive self-image with our actual history? with the Native American genocide? with slavery and Jim Crow? with the oppression of women, of gays and lesbians, of a long list of groups who in one way or another have been labeled abnormal or unworthy? How do we square it right now with the way we are separating families who come to our border looking for help?

And I answer that the America we envision, the one that commands our highest loyalty, does not live in history. There is no moment we can look back to and say, “That was America. Let us make America great again.” The America we envision is an idea and always has been. We have never lived up to it and we’re not living up to it now.

Who would know better than a black man in the midst of the Great Depression just how far American history has fallen short of the American idea? In 1935, Langston Hughes saw the dream of America as clearly as anyone:

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

But he also lived the reality. “America,” he wrote, “never was America to me.”

Even so, he did not reject the American dream in scorn. He did not retreat into cynicism. Instead he found his America in the future. Hughes believed that our repeated failures should not invalidate our vision, but instead should only reinforce our conviction that someday we must succeed:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every [one] is free.
… America has never been America to me,
And yet I swear this oath: “America will be!”

We fulfill the idea of America today in many ways that we fell short two hundred years ago, or fifty years ago, or even ten years ago. Our highest hope is that future generations will be America in ways that we never have been, that they will look back on us not as the good old days, but as an era only slightly less benighted than the ones before it.

And so, we do not need to look backward and whitewash our history, or pretend the continent was empty and the Native Americans were never here, or claim that slavery wasn’t really that bad, or pretend that America has always been a good actor on the world stage, or that our motives for going to war have always been always pure. We don’t need to airbrush the racism and plutocracy that are still here today.

We can acknowledge all that, and yet look ahead with Langston Hughes and say: “America will be!”

I’ve left the hardest question to last, because I don’t have a good answer yet. Given how polarized this country has become, how are we going to renew our covenant? How are we going to reach across our divides and reclaim our loyalty to one another?

“Delight in each other,” John Winthrop said. That seems so distant now. And yet, even here our history must give us hope, because we have been in worse places before. At a darker time than this one, President Lincoln closed his first inaugural address like this:
We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
May that day come soon.