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.

Friday, March 01, 2019

Men and #MeToo

Presented to the Unitarian Universalists of Lakewood Ranch on February 24, 2019. A previous version was given at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois.  

READINGS

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren is a Pulitzer-prize-winning novel published in 1946. In this segment, which would have taken place some time in the 1920s, the narrator, Jack Burden, describes his high-school romance with the woman who becomes the love of his life, Anne Stanton.
Sometimes, when I stopped the car she wouldn't even open her eyes until I had leaned over to kiss her, and I might have to kiss her enough to stop her breath.

Or again, she would wait till just the instant before the kiss, then open her eyes wide, all at once, and say, "Boo!" and laugh. Then she'd be all knees and sharp elbows and little short laughs and giggles and serpentine evasions and strategy worthy of a jujitsu expert when I tried to capture her for a kiss.

It was remarkable then how that little seat of a roadster gave as much room for deployment and maneuver as the classic plains of Flanders and a creature who could lie in your clutch as lissome as willow and soft as silk and cuddly as a kitten could suddenly develop that appalling number of cunning, needle-pointed elbows and astute knees.
I read that to you to point out what's not in it. It apparently never occurs to Jack (either at the time or years later when he's telling the story) that maybe some nights Anne just doesn't want a to be kissed. That's not a possibility he thinks he needs to account for.

David Wong is also a novelist and writes for the website Cracked.com. The second reading is from an essay he wrote in 2016 in the wake of Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape. It’s called: "7 Reasons So Many Guys Don't Understand Sexual Consent".

Here's the first lesson I got on sexual consent. I was six years old. My hero and lifelong role model, Han Solo, approaches a woman who has told him at every opportunity that she's not interested. Han comes up from behind and presses his body against hers. She's a strong woman, a fighter, so she physically shoves him off.

Undeterred, Han moves back in, grabs her hands, and starts rubbing them. She says, "Stop that," and looks nervous. When he doesn't stop, she clearly says it again. He still doesn't stop. Romantic music plays … and he kisses her. Note: Her head is pressed up against a metal wall and all of this occurs in a sealed spacecraft floating in the cold vacuum of outer space. Even if she wanted to leave, she couldn't.

The result of this encounter is that she falls in love with this man.

I'd estimate that 95 percent of the action movie cool guy role models of my youth molested women into loving them at least once. James Bond did it in ... every movie, I think. In Goldfinger (1964), he rapes Pussy Galore in a barn, which causes her to abandon her life of crime and join his side.

In The Mask Of Zorro (1998), a woman tries to kill Antonio Banderas, and in response, he strips her naked with his blade and forces a kiss. As a result, they fall in love.

Let's be clear: During my formative years, I was absolutely taught that rape was wrong, many times. But "rape" was defined as a man with a ski mask in an alley forcing himself on a stranger under the threat of violence.

If someone had come in and told teenage me that "groping" a woman or forcing kisses was a form of sexual assault, I'd have been very, very confused. You just called most of the action heroes of my childhood serial rapists! "And what if it makes her fall in love with him?"

I never, in any of my public school years, had a lesson saying you needed to wait for verbal consent before touching a woman. I saw the quarterback of the football team slap girls on the butt. I saw guys reach around and grab girls' boobs as a prank. I saw mistletoe hung over doorways and was told if you and a girl stood under it, she had to kiss you. One time when we were playing volleyball at the beach, Dr. Dre ran up and unhooked a girl's bikini top.
Wong goes on to say that he never did anything like that himself. At the time, though,
 he didn’t experience that as his gentlemanly virtue, but rather as his lack of boldness and virility. He just never felt cool enough to act like James Bond.

He goes on:
Have I mentioned that yet how much shame I felt at the time for not being a "real man”?

The point of this isn't to defend [insert subject of most recent scandal here], but to prevent people from insisting that guys like him are rare, incomprehensible monsters.

They're not.

Ridding guys of toxic attitudes toward women is a monumental task. I've spent two solid decades trying to deprogram myself, to get on board with something that, in retrospect, should be patently obvious to any decent person.

SERMON

Seeing differently. I sometimes wonder what kind of a slave-owner I would have been.

I know that sounds weird, because by now we're so far removed from the era of slavery that the evil of it seems obvious. So it's hard to imagine that we wouldn’t have seen it at the time. If we had owned slaves, of course we'd have freed them and become crusaders for abolition. What else could we possibly have done?

But among the people who really did own slaves, comparatively few saw the evil of it. So I have to wonder: Would I have seen it?

Picture me growing up in an old Virginia family that has owned slaves for generations. I've been surrounded by slaves all my life. And then, when I go off to college my parents give me Ezekiel as a manservant - to carry my bags, take care of my clothes, start the fire on cold mornings, and do all those other things enslaved people do.

And I develop this strangely bifurcated relationship with Ezekiel. On the one hand, he is my closest companion. I spend more time with him than with anyone else, and he probably knows me better than my white friends do. But on the other hand, he is a piece of my property, a legally inferior being. Does that seem wrong to me, or not?

One reason it might not is that I've been taught all the self-serving myths of my slave-owning culture: that Africans wouldn't know what to do with freedom, that they're childlike and need us to watch out for them, that they were lucky to be brought here and introduced to Christian civilization.

And rather than the wrongness of slavery in general, I've been taught that there are good and bad masters. Some are cruel, and of course that is wrong. But my family, I am sure, treats our slaves well. Not like human beings exactly, but like prized cattle. They are valuable, and we respect that. So we are good masters.

Would I see through those myths? Would I understand that Ezekiel is a human being like I am, and that his life means as much to him as mine does to me? Would I set him free and start making my own fires in the morning? Or not?

And even a decade or two after Emancipation, how do I look back on those days? Do I still think of myself as a good master because I never had Ezekiel whipped? Or do I see my memories through new eyes now? Do I recall all the times when I discounted his point of view, or ignored his discomfort or humiliation?

I'd like to think that at least now I would feel some guilt or shame. But maybe I wouldn't have. A lot of masters never did.

I’ve gone off on this long tangent to make a point: When you are surrounded by people who see the world in a particular way, it is hard to see it differently. It is genuinely difficult to be significantly wiser or better than the culture of your time and place.

How men have reacted to #MeToo scandals. One reason to doubt that I would have been better then is that in my lifetime I have been part of a group that has mistreated another group. We had our own self-serving mythology that explained and justified that mistreatment. And for a very long time I did not see through it.

I’m talking about the sexual harassment of women by men, the kind that has been described in such volume under the #MeToo hashtag.

One thing I find discouraging is that no matter how many times a new high-profile accusation restarts the national conversation, the reaction of men never seems to change. We keep sorting ourselves into the same categories and saying the same things.

The accused usually admit nothing. And rather than express regret, they portray themselves as the “real” victims. They rage about the false accusations that are destroying their lives.

Invariably, quite a few men rally around them. Whenever there's a new scandal, they think: "Oh, that poor man" - as if being called a rapist or abuser or harasser is even more horrible than being raped or abused or harassed. They worry that if the public starts believing these women, then none of us will be safe from false accusations. So what-if-she-is-lying is a possibility that they imagine in great detail and with deep empathy. What-if-she-is-telling-the-truth, not so much.

Another cohort of men think of themselves as sympathetic to women. They believe the accusers and denounce the crimes. But their highest priority is to draw a bright red line between good men like themselves and the small number of bad men who do these things.

When women widen their outrage to encompass men in general or start talking about a "rape culture", these men feel wronged. (They have aired their grievances under the #NotAllMen hashtag.) And like any privileged class, they believe that their own offended sensibilities should go to the front of the line. So we can talk about sexual harassment, but only after everyone acknowledges that it has nothing to do with me.

In the public discussion surrounding the Brett Kavanaugh hearings last September, I heard yet another point of view, one I hadn't noticed before: a what-if-he-did view. Kavanaugh had been 17 or 18 when he was supposed to have assaulted Christine Blasey Ford. It was a long time ago. He's a different man now. So why does it matter?

Interestingly, that argument didn't go over so well among 17 and 18-year-olds, who like to believe that their actions really do matter. But men Kavanaugh's age and older - men like me - ate it up. To my generation, I think, the attractive idea wasn't just that people change, it was that the early 1980s was a different time. Men using force against women wasn't taken as seriously then. It's almost as if we didn't know it was wrong.

What I rarely hear from men, and what I would like to hear more often, is not just that rape and assault and harassment are wrong, but also that the men who do these things are not (as the reading put it) “rare, incomprehensible monsters”. Their crimes do not come out of nowhere. They come out of a way of thought, a way of viewing men and women, that is widespread in our culture. What separates these men from most of the rest of us, I believe, is not a difference of kind, but rather a difference of degree.

I realize that's a sweeping accusation. In order to justify it, I will need to claim my own piece of the problem, and explain a little about how I was raised to think about men and women.

The self-serving mythology of my generation. Much like slave-owners in the Old South, men of my generation had a self-justifying mythology with just enough truth in it that if we  didn't want to see through it we didn't have to. (I won't try to speak for younger men, but I believe that a lot of these notions are still kicking around.)

The mythology goes like this: Society doesn't allow women to admit that they want sex, but they secretly do. So when a man suggests sex, a woman is socially obligated to say no, even if she doesn't really mean it.

It follows, then, that a man shouldn't take that first no for an answer. Or the second. Or maybe the third. If you make a grab for a woman and she pushes you away, you make another grab just to see if she's serious.

Again and again, we were told that this works. Force that first kiss on a woman, and even if she's a strong character like Princess Leia, she may decide that she likes it. Force works. Persistence works. Stalking works. Refusing to take no for an answer is how you show a woman that you're really interested. So you should never give up, no matter what she says or does.

And women, we were told, like it that way. Older, more experienced men assured us of that, and sometimes they even put those words into the mouth of some female character. In Oklahoma, Ado Annie, the girl who can't say no, sings:
Other girls are coy and hard to catch,
But other girls ain't having any fun.
Every time I lose a wrastling match
I have the funny feeling that I won.
Now, of course, those lyrics were written by a man, Oscar Hammerstein. But Oscar didn't invent that point of view either. It's been around for literally thousands of years.

As best I can determine, the original how-to-pick-up-girls manual was The Art of Love, written by the Roman poet Ovid in the year 2. He says:
Though you call it force: it’s force that pleases girls. What delights is often to have given what they wanted, against their will. She who is taken in love’s sudden onslaught is pleased, and finds wickedness is a tribute. And she who might have been forced, and escapes unscathed, will be saddened, though her face pretends delight.
So go ahead and use force, guys. Women like it, even if they can’t admit it. Everyone says so. Or at least men say so, and they're the ones whose words get remembered.

Of course we all knew that some men push it too far, just as slave owners knew that some masters were cruel. But like slave owners, we concluded just that there were some bad individuals, not that the whole system - and our own participation in it - was wrong.

The Game. What results from that mythology and that justification is a view of male/female interaction as basically a game: Men are supposed to try to get away with things, and women are supposed to try to stop them. So if you're a man and you get away with something, well then, points to you. You scored.

That mindset filtered all the way down to age groups that didn't have any clear idea what sex was. Little boys would bedevil little girls in all sorts of ways, just to see what they could get away with. If you managed to see a girl's underwear, points to you. If you managed to sneak into the girls bathroom, points to you. It was all part of the game. Of course, we never asked the girls whether they wanted to play this game. That didn't seem important.

David Wong described how that game continued into high school: Force a girl to kiss you -- points to you. Unhook her bikini top on the beach -- points to you. And if you're not accumulating those kinds of points, then shame on you. You should be more like James Bond or Han Solo.

So it's a game.

But what are games, really? A game is a simpler world that we descend into for a time, a world with fewer options and clearer goals. Inside a game, we voluntarily give up the full complexity of human life and become players, or even just tokens. To play chess is to agree, for a period of time, to become the white pieces or the black pieces. In Monopoly, for a few hours you put aside your complicated life and become the Top Hat or the Race Car or the Little Dog.

Inside the game, our choices are confined to the ones the rules allow, and our motives are shaped by the definition of winning. Along the way, we may act out combat or greed or cruelty, depending on what kind of game we're in.

Sometimes, escaping into a game may be just what we need. Our real lives can be so paralyzingly complicated, and our accomplishments so ambiguous and uncertain. At the end of most days, it seems ridiculous to ask, "Did I win?" I don't know. I did things. Things happened. Maybe some of them will turn out well eventually. Who can say?

What a relief it can be, then, to sink into a simpler world, to be a player, to make simple decisions and see immediate consequences. In a matter of minutes or maybe an hour or two,  it's over: you win, you lose. Next game.

And that can be fine, as long as the games eventually end and you reclaim your full humanity. But there can be times when the very depth that makes human existence rich and fascinating can start to feel like a burden. And then it can be tempting to turn large chunks of life into a game. We can get lost in those games, and start to imagine that our game character is who we really are.

So, for example, you can get lost in the game of materialism, and start thinking that you are what you own. You can get lost in the game of corporate advancement or social climbing, and think that you are your job title or your position in the community. In playing the game, you haven't just taken a break from being your highest self, you've lost track of it completely.

Imagining Kavanaugh. When we first heard Dr. Ford's accusations against Brett Kavanaugh, that he and a friend had pushed her into a side bedroom, held her down and started trying to take off her clothes, I think most people thought: "How could he do something like that?" And they concluded either that he didn't and she was lying, or that he did and he must be some kind of monster.

But I found it disturbingly easy to imagine how he could have done it. He could have been lost in the Game of Men and Women. He was trying to get away with something, and she was trying to stop him, like men and women do. In his mind at that moment, they might not have been complete human beings, souls of infinite worth. Maybe they were just players.

And yes, putting a hand over her mouth to stop her from screaming was cruel and vicious. But I also might cruelly force the Top Hat into bankruptcy, or viciously destroy black's king-side defense. If it was all happening in the game, he might have lost track not just of her humanity, but of his own also.

You might deduce from that speculation that I identify with Brett Kavanaugh. And you'd be right, I do. But I take that identification somewhere different than his defenders do. It's not that I believe I should feel sympathy towards Kavanaugh. But that I should feel shame about myself.

The missing piece. Male shame has been the missing piece of the #MeToo phenomenon. When the #MeToo hashtag went viral in 2017, what was shocking about it wasn't any particular story of some man harassing or assaulting some woman. It was that almost every woman seemed to have a story to tell.

What was eye-opening to men was to look around and realize that the women in their own lives - their friends and wives and mothers and sisters and daughters - had stories to tell. But very few men took the next step, and recognized that this can't just be the work of a few bad men. It has to be some large percentage of the male population.

And what we definitely did not do in response was to tell our own stories. Women by the tens of thousands had opened up memories that not only raised anger they still weren’t sure what to do with, but that also made them feel vulnerable and dirty and ashamed. And men for the most part responded by shutting down, by saying "Not all men. Not me. There's a bright red line and I have lived my life on the right side of it."

What if we hadn't done that? What if we had found our courage and told our own difficult stories, the ones that make us feel dirty and ashamed and vulnerable - not because we were victims but because we were in the wrong? It's not too late. I think we should.

Confessions. The unfortunate thing about advocating those sorts of confessions is that you're then kind of obligated to get it started. So here I go.

Like David Wong, I never thought I was cool enough to go the full James Bond, so I don't have any stories of rape or attempted rape to tell. But I don’t believe that puts some bright red line between me and the bad guys. If I had been cooler, if, say, I had come from a well-to-do family and been a football player at an elite high school, like Brett Kavanaugh, who can say what I would have felt entitled to do?

I will tell you a couple of the stories I do have, stories I’m not proud of.

The first one was from when I was maybe 13, I don't remember exactly. My parents took me along when they visited their friends, who had a girl who was maybe 7. As usually happened, the adults stayed upstairs and the kids were banished to the basement. I probably resented that, so I decided to tease the girl by playing an I'm-gonna-get-you sort of game. The form of the game was "I'm going to pull down your pants." Like all I'm-gonna-get-you games, it involved a certain amount of chasing and wrestling. She resisted, and I let her win, so no pants were actually pulled down.

But what was I thinking? What would I think if I heard that story about a boy today? And worse, how did she experience that? I doubt she enjoyed it. Did she soon forget about it, or does it maybe still bother her from time to time? I have no idea.

In high school, I liked to make girls jump. If I saw a girl lost in a book or concentrating on some kind of work, I would sneak up behind her and startle her, either by making a noise, or, if I was really daring that day, poking her in some ticklish spot. Then she'd jump, and I thought that was funny. If any other boys were around, they'd think it was funny too. So: points to me. Some girls I did this to many times.

At the time, it didn't seem like a big deal to me. But now I wonder what it meant to my victims, how it changed their experience to know that they couldn't sink too deeply into concentration or lose track of what was behind them. To what extent did I contribute to their impression that school - or the world - was just not a safe place?

But I didn't think about that then, because it was a game to me and we were all just players. I never asked the girls if they wanted to play my game, and none of them ever told me that they enjoyed it. But somehow that didn't matter, even though, as David Wong says, the fact that it mattered should have been patently obvious to any decent person.

Game over. So what's the point of making confessions like that? Why do I wish more men would do it? First, because, as long as men are holding back our own guilty secrets -- even if they happened a long time ago and may seem small compared to crimes like rape -- we are not going to be the allies that women need us to be.

Instead, whenever public attention turns to male misbehavior, some part of us is going to freeze up and hope somebody changes the subject. Rather than listen and respond with empathy, we’re going to want to defend that bright red line between ourselves and the bad guys.

But even more importantly, like the stories women have told, widespread male confessions would show the problem of harassment and abuse in its proper scale. Yes, a few men behave in spectacularly horrible ways. And justice does require that the Bill Cosbys and Harvey Weinsteins face public rejection and legal punishment. But that alone won’t solve the underlying problem.

As a culture, we have consistently treated women like players in a game that they never signed up for. By doing that, we have failed to recognize their sovereignty over their own bodies. And in far too many situations we have failed to grant them their full humanity.

That game is the problem that needs to be solved. It has gone on far too long. Men in general (and not just a few bad men) have kept it going through our lifetimes and taught the next generation how to play.

So it's far past time that we take responsibility for that game and join women in demanding that it stop.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Stewardship Sunday

Here’s what I said this morning at First Parish in Bedford, Mass.:

I am Doug Muder, representing the Stewardship Committee. Today is the beginning of the annual stewardship campaign, when we ask you to make a financial pledge to First Parish for the next church year. 

This year’s theme is “Make it real.” What we’re trying to call attention to with that slogan is the difference between groups that have good intentions and groups that actually make things happen in the real world. 

Fundamentally, that difference boils down to two factors: If you’re going to make real things happen, you need people who are willing to commit their time and energy, and you need money.

Money is what we can quantify, so that’s the number we ask for. But stewardship is really about a bigger question: What are all of us willing to do in the next year to make things real? How are we going to take the ideals and hopes and visions of this congregation and turn them into events and actions and things we can touch with our hands?

I can’t ask you for a number that sums up how much effort and creativity you’re going to contribute next year, or how far out of your comfort zone you’re going to be willing to push yourself to make things happen. But those also are questions we all ought to be thinking about during this campaign. 

Over the next few weeks a number of parishioners are going to be up here doing what we call “Stewardship moments”. In other words, they’re going to explain in a few minutes what First Parish means to them and why they are committed to it. 

Those moments have a deeper purpose than just to convince you to give more money. What they’re about is getting you to examine your own relationship to First Parish, what this community means to you, and what it could mean.

During my 23 years here and my 30 years as a UU, I’ve thought about my pledge in four very different ways. But what that’s really about is that I’ve experienced four very different kinds of relationships to my church.

The first time I pledged, I had what you might call a transactional relationship. I wanted to pay for what I used, so I tried to figure out what that would amount to. Coffee and cookies, my UU World subscription. I know it costs something to put on a service, so I invented a ticket price to cover that. I added something for all the other events I go to: classes and concerts and discussion groups. I like to talk to a minister once or twice a year about what I’m trying to do with my life and how it’s going, so I added a little more for that, and so on. Eventually I came up with a number that represented the transactional value I was getting from the church. If I contributed that much, I figured, then I was paying my way.

Before long, though, my relationship changed to what I call a charitable relationship. I started to believe in Unitarian Universalism as a movement, and I liked the idea of an institution spreading UU values in this community. So I wanted to support more than just what I used myself. 

That kind of relationship means that I want this church to have good services even on Sundays when I’m not here, and I want them available to people who can’t afford that imaginary ticket. Even though I don’t have kids in RE, I like the idea of teaching UU values to the next generation. I want to support a broader array of social justice activities than I can work on myself. I want our ministers out there being a voice in the community, and I want them to be available to whoever needs them, not just to me. 

That thinking led to a different pledge because it was a different relationship.

A few years after that, my relationship changed again, in a way that’s a little hard to describe. The best analogy I can think of is what happens to homeowners, when they stop evaluating improvements in terms of resale value, and start thinking: “This is my home. How do I want my home to be?”

In other words, I started to take ownership of First Parish: “This is my church. I want it to be a good church.”

So, for example, it’s not just that I want some church to give sanctuary to immigrants facing an unfair deportation order. I want my church to do it. Last year when I went to the Women’s March on Boston Common, it made a difference to me that I wasn’t just one more face out of 200,000. I was there with my people. The plan to make this building as close to carbon-neutral as we can get it — I supported it because that’s how I want my church to be.

That sense of ownership, of deep belonging, it led to yet another way of thinking about my pledge. 

Originally, I was going to close with that, but as I was explaining those three relationships to my wife Deb, she pointed to a fourth: a legacy relationship.

There aren’t many things you do in life that leave a mark on the world, something that continues through the years, maybe even beyond your lifetime. Raising a child can leave a mark. Maybe something in your career will leave a mark. There are a few other places you might try to leave a mark, but there aren’t many. Most of what we do in life is stuff that evaporates almost as soon as we finish doing it. 

But the people who started this congregation left a mark we can still see almost three centuries later. The people who built this meeting house in 1817 — we’re still benefitting from what they did. 

And we’re continuing that work. I was pretty new in this church when I started seeing drawings of what would become the Common Room. Then we had a capital campaign, and we made those drawings real. That room will probably outlive all of us.

I’ve talked to older members who were on the search committee that decided that this young John Gibbons guy might do OK as our minister. What if you did something like that? You think you might still be proud years and years later?

First Parish is a place where you might try to leave a mark. That is a different relationship from paying your way or supporting UU values or even taking ownership. 

So today we’re starting a stewardship campaign like we do every year. In a few days you’ll get a mailing that has a pledge card in it. We hope you’ll write a big number on it and send it back. In the coming weeks, you’ll hear all kinds of numbers from us: how many pledges we’ve received, what they total up to, and how much we still need to make our goal.

But through it all, I don’t want any of us to lose sight of the lesson of the stewardship moments: that numbers are just the surface of this campaign.

The deeper point is to get you thinking about the relationship you have to First Parish now. And even more important, thinking about the relationship you want to have.

And to leave you with a question: In the coming year, what might you do to make that relationship real?

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Owning My Racism

a sermon given at First Parish Church in Billerica, Massachusetts on January 14, 2018

Opening Words

“In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” - Toni Morrison

First Reading: Huckleberry Finn

I grew up in Illinois, in the next town up the Mississippi from Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain grew up and where he set the novels Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Twain continues to be a regional hero along that section of the river. Hannibal holds a Tom Sawyer Days festival each July, and you can tour a cave which is supposed to be the one in Tom Sawyer. If you just went to the festivals and never read the books, you might think Twain had written happy, nostalgic stories about pre-Civil-War Missouri. But in fact he portrayed his hometown fairly accurately, the good and bad alike. In particular, he didn’t sugarcoat the racism he grew up with, racism that was still echoing through that region more than a century later, when I grew up. For example: the belief that the suffering of black people doesn’t really count, because maybe they aren’t people at all.

In Chapter 32 of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is looking for his friend, the runaway slave Jim, when he wanders onto the farm of Tom Sawyer’s aunt and uncle, who haven’t seen Tom for years and mistake Huck for their nephew. Aunt Sally expects the boy to have arrived by steamboat and wonders why he hadn’t gotten there sooner, so Huck spins a story about the steam engine blowing a cylinder head.

“Good gracious!” Aunt Sally responds. “Anybody hurt?”

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.”

Second Reading: Interview with Chris Rock

The comedian Chris Rock was interviewed by Frank Rich in 2014. In this section of that interview, he attacks the idea that civil rights is a story of black progress.

I almost cry every day. I drop my kids off and watch them in the school with all these mostly white kids, and I got to tell you, I drill them every day: “Did anything happen today? Did anybody say anything?” They look at me like I am crazy.

… When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.

So, to say Obama is [black] progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. [Electing Obama isn’t] black progress. [It’s] white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.

If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.”

It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner[’s progress]. Nothing. It just doesn’t.

… My kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced.

Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

Sermon

Tomorrow is the holiday that celebrates Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in which he played such a central role. I am a white speaker addressing a mostly white congregation in a mostly white denomination. So what is a good and appropriate way for me to mark this occasion?

I have seen a lot of ways that I don’t want to do it. For example, some white politicians make MLK Day the celebration of a historical triumph, like Yorktown or D-Day. It marks the time, decades ago, when the civil rights movement for all practical purposes ended racism in America.

So that’s all over now, we don’t need to think or talk about it any more, and we can continue forward into our colorblind future. Thank you, Dr. King.

For other whites, MLK day is just another ethnic holiday, like Cinco de Mayo. Just as everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, everybody is black during the MLK weekend. So we should all eat soul food and sing the old slave spirituals, not because they mean anything, but because that’s just what you do. If you can sing “White Christmas” in Florida, then you can sing “Go Down Moses” on Wall Street or in Beverley Hills. Why not?

Some whites understand that the civil rights movement still has work to do, but they see it as a black thing that they don’t need to participate in. “You go, black people. Win your equality. We’ll stand here on the sidelines and cheer you on, because that’s the kind of socially conscious white folks we are.”

Some white speakers explain to blacks that we’d like to help you achieve justice, but you’re going about it all wrong, with your “Black Lives Matter” and kneeling during the national anthem and all that. “Let me give you the benefit of my Olympian white wisdom and explain what you ought to be doing. And when you start doing that, then I’ll pitch right in. You’re welcome.”

And finally there are the speakers I hesitate to criticize, because they’re right as far as they go. They talk about real, important issues: voting rights, mass incarceration, police who act more like an occupying army than like defenders of the community. They point to the growing acceptance of white supremacists in our national conversation, to the increasingly bold nostalgia for the Confederacy, and the slavery that defined it.

They observe how our leaders yell “Terrorism!” when a Muslim young man is influenced by jihadist propaganda on the internet and shoots up a nightclub in Orlando. But when a white young man is influenced by white supremacist propaganda on the internet and shoots up a black church in Charleston, that’s just mental illness. It doesn’t require any change in policy.

They point out how our president can describe whites chanting “Sieg Heil!” in Charlottesville as “very fine people”. But if you’re African, then he says you come from “a shithole country” and we don’t want you.

That’s all happening. It’s all real. There’s a serious political and social battle going on out there, and we do need to be part of it.

But if that’s all you say, you leave the unstated implication that the battle out there is the only important one. Good is fighting Evil out there somewhere, and all we need to do is pick the right side. If we vote for the right candidates, go to the right demonstrations, send the right letters to our representatives, and like the right pages on Facebook, then we’re OK. We’re the good white people, not the bad white people.

I don’t want to talk you out of any of those actions. There is a battle out there, and I do want you to be on the right side of it. And if you use Martin Luther King weekend as a time to re-energize and re-dedicate yourself to that struggle, that’s a fine thing to do.

But I think the reason to have this discussion inside a church rather than at a political rally is to recognize that the fight against racism, like any battle of Good and Evil, is not just something that happens out there. The struggle against racism also has to happen inside every individual — inside me, inside you. Because living in a culture of white supremacy — a culture that enslaved millions of people, that tolerated Jim Crow, and that continues to accept that the races have an education gap and an achievement gap and a power gap and a wealth gap — living in that culture has consequences. It has imprinted itself on all of us in all kinds of ways. If we don’t try to root that out, if we never introspect and take a critical look at our habits of thought and word and deed, then our instinctive responses will inevitably undermine our conscious intentions.

There can be no clearer example of this truth than the Unitarian Universalist Association. For the last several decades, you would have been hard pressed to find white people with better conscious intentions than the ones who were decision-makers at the UUA. And yet, last year a crisis erupted over the fact that the people the UUA hires, especially at the highest levels, are disproportionately white. That white dominance was not a goal that anyone set out to achieve. And yet it happened.

I feel particularly well qualified to lead a service on internalized racism, because the racism inside me is not that hard to find. Sometimes I hear young ministers who were brought up UU in the 1990s delve deep to give examples of their internal racism, and I confess that those talks can make me envious. “Really? That’s all you found?”

I was brought up racist. It got in there deep. It shaped some of the fundamental ways I perceive the world, and I’ve been trying to overcome it most of my life.

Whenever you make a confession like that in front of other white people, 
somebody is bound to ask, “Well, what do you mean by racism?” And whatever answer you give, they’ll tell you that you’ve got it wrong. Because that’s one of the primary ways whites distract ourselves from introspecting about racism: We argue endlessly about what the word ought to mean, and never get around to applying whatever definition we come up with.

I wrote a column in the Fall issue of UU World called “Of Course I’m Racist”. Not long after it came out, I was at my church in Bedford when one of the other parishioners came up to me and started a conversation by very authoritatively declaring, “You’re not racist.” I wanted to respond with something flip, like: “Thank you for clearing that up for me.” But instead I listened to his definition of racism and why it would leave me out.

I got various other odd reactions through social media. In the article, I had talked about growing up racist in a white working class neighborhood of that river town in the Midwest. I did my best to talk about myself and my own experiences. But some readers interpreted every adjective I used as a blanket indictment of the corresponding class of people: small towns, the working class, the Midwest, whites. In making my own confession, I apparently had accused them of something, and they felt offended. Because that’s another way whites divert the discussion and avoid examining ourselves: we take offense. “How dare anybody mention racism to me? I don’t hate black people. I never lynched anybody. I’m against the KKK. I’ve had friends who weren’t white. I even voted for Obama.”

Well, me too. That kind of stuff is not what I’m talking about. So what exactly am I confessing to? What do I mean when I apply the word racist to myself?

I mean this: In the environment that shaped me, people implicitly meant white people. (To this day, if a joke starts “A guy walks into a bar …” I picture a white guy. I don’t know what color his hair is, or whether he’s tall or short, fat or skinny, but I’m sure he’s white.)

Everything I learned about people — how to treat them, what to expect from them, what rights they have — was a lesson about whites. Black people might as well have been a different species entirely.

Of course I learned that all people are created equal … but black people? It didn’t follow; the question was still up for discussion. Of course the Golden Rule told me to treat others as I want to be treated. But what if the others were black? The answer was not obvious.

That’s why I shake my head at the whites who respond to “Black lives matter” not with “Yes, they do”, but with “All lives matter.” Yes, all lives matter. But do black lives matter? Because that logical deduction hasn’t always worked in America. Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal” and then went home to his slave plantation. That’s our history. We say “all” and then we leave blacks out of it.

So that upbringing created a racial distinction not just in my thoughts and opinions, but in my perceptions and instincts. I learned to see and respond to people and black people differently.

That’s what’s going on in that Huck Finn reading. The steamboat accident Huck tells about kills a black man, but no people. And Aunt Sally, who doesn’t know Huck is making the whole thing up, says that was lucky, because sometimes people get hurt.

That kind of talk wasn’t quite so explicit when I was growing up in the next century. But you could still hear echoes of it in the jokes we told.

I want to do an aside here about ethnic jokes. When I was growing up, almost everyone — even comedians performing in public — told ethnic jokes. And a lot of whites my age and older remember them as harmless fun that we can’t have any more in this humorless era of political correctness.

There is a sense in which that’s true, because a lot of the jokes weren’t really about the people they seemed to be about. To a large extent, the ethnic stereotypes were really just exaggerations of human failings we all share. Most of us, I think, understood that. An ethnic joke was a way of laughing at our own human weaknesses while also saying “Well, at least I’m not that bad.”

So if you heard a group of men joking about drunken Irishmen, you knew that probably all of them had gotten drunk at one time or another and had done something embarrassing. Even as you made fun of stereotypically greedy Jews or dumb Polocks, you knew that everybody is greedy sometimes and everybody does dumb things.

To a certain extent, what went around came around. Whatever group you belonged to, there were jokes about you too. The stereotype of my people, the Germans, was that you don’t dare put us in charge of anything, because then our inner Nazi will come out. One joke asked if you’d been to the new German-Chinese restaurant; the food tastes great, it said, but an hour later you’re hungry for power.

Some of the jokes acknowledged stereotypic strengths as well as weaknesses. One joke had it that in Heaven the Italians are the cooks, the Germans are the engineers, and the English are the police. But in Hell, the English are the cooks, the Italians are the engineers, and the Germans are the police. That kind of stuff really is mostly harmless fun.

But the jokes we told about blacks were different. A lot of them didn’t point to our common humanity, but instead relied on the idea that blacks were subhuman, so you didn’t have to have compassion for them. Their suffering didn’t count. In a joke about blacks, very often the surprise in the punch line was that something horrific was happening, something the set-up of the joke hadn’t led you to expect. So what we were laughing at 
wasn’t some universal human flaw that we had projected onto blacks and understood that we shared with them. Instead, we were laughing at our own cruelty, which it was OK to express, as long we were joking and the victim was black.

I debated long and hard about whether I need to tell such a joke this morning just to establish that I’m not exaggerating. You’ll probably be relieved to hear that I decided not to.

But I remembered those jokes when I heard about Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man arrested on a minor charge by Baltimore police in 2015. Witnesses described him being roughed up during the arrest. He was then thrown into a paddy wagon and not belted in properly. By some accounts, the police gave him what is called a “rough ride”, bouncing the van around intentionally. By the time the van arrived, he was in a coma. A few days later, he died.

I don’t know what really happened that day. I don’t know any of those policemen, or what any of them were thinking at the time. But I when I heard about Gray’s death, I had to wonder if, as the police were giving him his “rough ride”, they thought it was hilarious. One curse of my upbringing is that I can easily imagine how they might.

So where does that leave me? As I said already, the most extreme definitions of racism don’t apply to me. I don’t hate people of color. I don’t consciously seek to do them harm. Politically, I am on their side. I don’t see racial progress as something we must wait for blacks to achieve. It is a goal for our society, for our nation, and we all must do our part to bring it about.

In my personal life, I haven’t told racist jokes for many years. I don’t intentionally discriminate against anybody. Consciously, I try not to do anything that will make American racism worse.

And yet … still, now and then, when I look back on something I’ve just done or said or felt, particularly when I have reacted instinctively, without thinking about it, I realize that I’ve been racist.

When President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, I was concerned about his lack of qualifications even before Anita Hill went public with her accusation of sexual harassment. Only later did it occur to me that I had also known nothing about the qualifications of Bush’s previous nominee, David Souter. It just hadn’t bothered me.

You see, I often have an instinctive reaction of generosity, to make an exception and give the new guy a chance. But it rarely applies to anybody other than white men. If I don’t consciously correct for that, I will discriminate.

Over the decades, I’ve developed a long list of things I have to consciously correct for. A few years ago, I was staying at a hotel in Washington, D.C. that wasn’t near any obvious Metro station. So when I hit the lobby that morning, I was wondering how I was going to get where I was going. Next to the door, a tall black man in a very proper dark suit was standing in a very erect posture, and I thought, “Oh, the doorman.” So I asked him where the cab stand was.

He turned out to be a diplomat from an African country. So I had to make another rule for myself: Don’t be so quick to assume that black people are there to serve you.

That’s how my life has been. I pile rules on top of rules to make sure that I don’t discriminate or insult anyone or embarrass myself. But no matter how many rules I make, I never get to the heart of the problem: Instinctively, I see white people and black people differently. No conscious insight or decision has ever been able to change that.

So to this day, getting cut off in traffic by a black driver makes me angrier than if I’d been cut off by a white driver. If I get bad service from a white clerk or waitress, I might cut her some slack: It’s a hard job, it wears a person down. But if I get bad service from a black, I’m more likely to frame the problem as some moral failing like laziness or resentment. Most of the time, I see what I’m doing, and I catch myself before I respond in some way I’ll regret.

Most of the time.

You’ve all been very patient with me this morning. In settings other than a sermon, I seldom get this far into a description of my own racism. Other whites usually don’t want to hear it. “What is the point,” they want to know, “of talking about stuff like this? Are we supposed to feel guilty? What good does that do anybody?”

Usually that’s a rhetorical question. It’s meant to shut the conversation down. But actually it’s not a bad question to take seriously: What is the point of doing this kind of introspection? If you find racism in yourself and feel guilty about it, what good does that do?

So my final point is that when I consider those instinctive responses that were impressed into my mind in childhood, the ones that I have tried all my life to correct, and only succeeded up to a point, I don’t feel guilty. I feel damaged. Something about myself that I don’t know how to fix causes me to keep screwing up.

Guilt is a proper response to things that we say or do that hurt other people. It motivates us to make amends, and to correct our behavior in the future. So when some instinctive racist response slips past my rules and manifests as behavior, then yes, I do feel guilty. I try to correct myself and make amends.

But damage isn’t something to feel guilty about. It is something to recognize and work around. Recognized damage that you deal with strategically is far less likely to cause trouble for you or for others than unacknowledged damage that constantly has to be covered up or explained away.

Finding your own racism is like any other kind of self-knowledge: It isn’t always pleasant. But the point isn’t to feel guilty about it or to punish yourself for it. The point of knowing about it is that it’s real. Understanding it better equips you to deal with the reality of your own life.

If you do introspect about your own racism, I don’t know what you’ll find. You might find less than I do, or more, or maybe nothing at all. But I do think that given the culture we are all immersed in, it’s worth taking a look at least once a year.

So happy Martin Luther King Day.

Closing Words

The closing words come from President Lyndon Johnson, as he was introducing the Voting Rights Act to a joint session of Congress in 1965. If you’ve never seen the video, look it up; it’s worth watching.

Johnson was not a great public speaker. He was clearly reading this speech, and most of the time his eyes looked down at his text on the podium. He read slowly and carefully, in a Texas drawl that could be painfully slow even when he wasn’t trying to be careful. And yet, somehow, all those imperfections combined to make the speech even more effective. Here’s part of what he said:

Rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, or our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved nation.The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue.

And should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For, with a country as with a person, “What is man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. … It is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.