Friday, June 26, 2020

Hope and Realism in Difficult Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

that’s when the grin should start.

First you gotta have heart.

It’s not an entirely rational thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe you have that faith.

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

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

I believe that, most of the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it keeps me going, no matter what happens.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Have Yourself a Very UU Christmas

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

Opening Words

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


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.


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.


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.


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.  


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 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.


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?