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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They're not.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it's a game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Stewardship Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Owning My Racism

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

Opening Words

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

First Reading: Huckleberry Finn

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

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

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

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

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

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

Second Reading: Interview with Chris Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most of the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So happy Martin Luther King Day.

Closing Words

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

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

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

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

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

And we shall overcome.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Born-Again Unitarian Universalist

Versions of this talk were delivered at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois on April 30, 2017 and at First Parish Church of Billerica, Massachusetts on March 26, 2017

Opening Words

"Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. Yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences. For this reason, the argument which is always forthcoming to silence those who conceive extraordinary hopes of man, namely, the appeal to experience, is forever invalid and vain. We give up the past to the objector, and yet we hope." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson


"Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late." -- William James


from The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James,
Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet by Sherry Turkle,
Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal,
and “Oh, When I Was in Love With You” by A. E. Housman

When Modern Library selected the 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century, #2 on their list was William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience from 1902. In that book, James was trying to break down the wall between psychology and religious studies. He wanted to claim religious experience as part of human experience, and expand the language of psychology to include it.

And so in this book he walks a narrow path, neither rejecting religious testimony outright nor accepting it at face value. He constructs what was then a new kind of objectivity, one that could listen to people’s accounts of experiencing God’s presence the same way that it listened to their accounts of falling in love or sliding into depression. People experience things, and describe them honestly but imperfectly. What, if anything, do we think actually happened?

The center of the book is James’ description of conversion experiences, when people report that God reaches into their lives and changes them top to bottom, so that they become, in essence, new people. He begins his explanation of this phenomenon by noting that we are all, in some unremarkable way, different people in different settings. Teddy Roosevelt, he imagines, is a different person on a hunting trip than in the White House.

Our primary identity, then, the person that we think we are most of the time, is not the whole of who we are, it’s just the center of a larger system. The ordinary experiences of life may change this larger system in ways that we do not always take account of, until our central identity doesn’t fit quite right any more, leading us to feel a vague wrongness about ourselves that we don’t really know what to do with.

Sometimes that sense of wrongness resolves itself suddenly, and we may feel as if some external force has changed us. In James’ account, though, the new identity forms not in the mind of God, but in the unconscious of the individual. Without us even realizing what is happening, who we are in some tiny sliver of our lives may be the model for who we become in a broader sense.

He writes: "Neither an outside observer nor the Subject who undergoes the process can explain fully how particular experiences are able to change one’s centre of energy so decisively, or why they so often have to bide their hour to do so. We have a thought, or we perform an act, repeatedly, but on a certain day the real meaning of the thought peals through us for the first time, or the act has suddenly turned into a moral impossibility. All we know is that there are dead feelings, dead ideas, and cold beliefs, and there are hot and live ones; and when one grows hot and alive within us, everything has to re-crystallize around it."

An example of how a new identity might incubate in one sliver of your life and then spread comes from a much more recent book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet by Sherry Turkle:

"My mother died when I was nineteen and a college junior. Upset and disoriented, I dropped out of school, I traveled to Europe, ended up in Paris, studied history and political science, and worked at a series of odd jobs from housecleaner to English tutor.

"The French-speaking Sherry, I was pleased to discover, was somewhat different from the English-speaking one. French-speaking Sherry was not unrecognizable, but she was her own person. In particular, while the English-speaking Sherry had little confidence that she could take care of herself, the French-speaking Sherry simply had to and got on with it.

"On trips back home, English-speaking Sherry rediscovered old timidities. [So] I kept returning to France, thirsty for more French speaking. Little by little, I became increasingly fluent in French and comfortable with the persona of the resourceful, French-speaking young woman. Now I cycled through the French- and English-speaking Sherry until the movement seemed natural; I could bend toward one and then the other with increasing flexibility.

"When English-speaking Sherry finally returned to college in the United States, she was never as brave as French-speaking Sherry. But she could hold her own. ...

"When I got to know French Sherry. I no longer saw the less confident English-speaking Sherry as my one authentic self."

Even more recently, computer-game designer Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken has added one further twist: The part of life where your new and better self first manifests doesn’t even have to be real.

Sometimes gamers feel that their characters a virtual universe are closer to their true selves than the characters they express in everyday life. It is not unusual to hear someone say that their game character is simply a better person — bolder, more honest, more courageous, and perhaps even brighter and more creative — than who they are outside the game. McGonigal herself claims she sometimes envies her character in World of Warcraft. “If I have one regret in life,” she says, “it’s that my undead priest is smarter than I am.”

But a discussion of such transformations wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging
that sometimes they don’t stick, as A. E. Housman noted in the following poem.

Oh, when I was in love with you,

Then I was clean and brave,
And miles around the wonder grew

How well did I behave.

And now the fancy passes by,

And nothing will remain,
And miles around they’ll say

that I am quite myself again.


A few months ago my wife and I drove to Florida and back, so we passed through a sizable chunk of the South, where we saw a number of billboards about Jesus.

What fascinated me about these Christian messages was the way they seemed intended to bring people up short, to stop an everyday thought-process in its tracks. “When you die,” said one, “you will meet God.” Others asked drivers where we were headed: not which exit, but towards Heaven or Hell?

Now, I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that I did not find Jesus and get saved on this trip -- I knew you'd be worried about that -- so the billboards failed in their direct purpose. But I grudgingly came to admire the underlying attitude: that religion ought to bring you up short. From time to time it ought to break through the hypnotic song of everyday life, the one that constantly keeps us focused a few exits or hours or days down the road: Who’s picking up the kids? What’s my next deadline at work? Where’s that TV series going? What’s Trump up to this time? And so on.

Too often, Unitarian Universalism just adds its own verses to that song: Should I make an announcement about that? Who do I want to talk to at coffee hour? Am I ready for my next committee meeting? A speaker may give you another issue to keep track of or another book to read. But your church experience usually doesn’t jolt you out of that focus on the near future.

It could, in either direction. Like a meditation practice, it might remind you of the irreplaceable richness of this moment, the glimmering, twinkling aspect of perception that you can only notice by being fully present here and now.

Or, like those billboards, it could call your attention to the larger story of your life. One of the many wise things Yogi Berra is supposed to have said is, “If you don’t change direction, you’ll probably wind up where you’re going.” So, where are you going? You don’t have to believe in a literal Heaven or Hell to realize that someday your life story will be complete. Are you satisfied with how it’s turning out?

It isn’t that UUs don’t ask questions like this. All people do from time to time. But we tend to have these thoughts someplace other than church. They show up, for example, on round-numbered birthdays. I turned 60 last fall: Is this where I thought I’d be? How do I feel about that? They also occur when somebody we measure ourselves against reaches a milestone: graduates or gets a promotion or retires or marries or has a child or grandchild. That’s where they are in their lives; where am I in mine?

And because these thoughts occur to each of us on our own idiosyncratic schedules, we tend to have them alone, when we’re waiting in line or awake in the middle of the night. If we’re lucky, some friend might listen to our concerns, but even then, the thoughts remain our own.

What we usually don’t do is get together as a community and admit that we all sometimes wonder where our lives are going, if we’re where we’re supposed to be, or if we need some kind of drastic change. Those questions are simultaneously intensely personal and very generically human.

One reason I think Christianity can get away with raising these kinds of questions, and even actively promoting people’s dissatisfaction with the course of their lives, is that Christians have a narrative of transformation. At the root of their worldview is a belief in sudden, sweeping change.

In an instant, the power of God could remake you completely. The Lord appears to Moses in a burning bush and calls him to save his people. On the road to Damascus, the voice of the risen Jesus speaks to Saul, the persecutor of Christians, and he becomes Paul, the greatest of the apostles. “Amazing Grace” claims that any sinner can go from lost to found, from blindness to sight — not through a long process of education and rehabilitation, but “the hour I first believed”. Grace comes into your life and blows away all the old obstacles.

In traditional Christianity, instant transformation goes all the way back to the Genesis Creation story, where there’s darkness, and then there’s light. The Sun and Moon, plants, animals, people — God says “Let there be” and there is, and it’s good. Just like that. By contrast, we tell the story of evolution, where progress is incredibly hard and takes forever. Generations live and die to mutate one little gene, so that over thousands or millions of years those tiny changes might add up to something.

Similarly, our church services are full of suggestions for change, but usually they are a thousand little changes: You should write your political representatives more often, and drive less, and recycle, and eat less meat, and stop using the language of the patriarchy, and boycott unjust corporations, and volunteer in soup kitchens, and register people to vote, and on and on and on. And nowhere in that story of being a good UU does otherworldly power infuse new energy into your life.

As a result, I sometimes come away depressed from talks that are supposed to inspire me. Rather than feeling fired up to go promote change, I sometimes think: “I have trouble getting taxes done and keeping the laundry from piling up. How am I going to do all that?”

Now imagine that someone starts talking about changing your whole life, and becoming a better person across the board. How? Without a belief in some kind of transforming power, bringing people up short and making them question where their lives are going is like a bad version of the old Listerine commercial: You persuade them that they have bad breath, but then you don’t have any mouthwash to sell them. Raising dissatisfaction without offering the hope of change on a similar scale is just cruel.

So I started to wonder if there might be some way to translate the Christian transformation narrative into Unitarian Universalist language. In other words: What would a born-again UU be like?How might a Unitarian life transform top to bottom?

Like William James, I went back and read a bunch of transformation stories out of the Christian tradition. And one of the first things I noticed is that the changes usually don’t happen as instantaneously as we sometimes think.

Moses isn’t listening to the burning bush one day and challenging Pharaoh the next. First he argues with God, then he meets with Aaron, then travels to get his father-in-law’s approval, then makes the 300-mile trek to meet with Jewish leaders in Egypt, and only then goes to Pharaoh. The Bible doesn’t tell us how long that took.

Saint Paul, similarly, has his experience on the road to Damascus, then continues into the city and waits three days before he’s healed of his vision-induced blindness. Then he spends time studying with the Christian community in Damascus, then goes to Jerusalem for another unspecified period, then sets off on the missionary voyages that eventually make him famous, and only then acquires his new name. The man whose authoritative voice we hear in the New Testament was many years removed from his supposedly instantaneous transformation.

But the story that really brings this point home is that of John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace”. His life did indeed transform. From a wild and rebellious sailor on slave ships, he eventually became a tea-totaling abolitionist Anglican priest.


Newton dated his conversion from 1748, after his ship survived a storm that he had been sure would kill him. But he continued captaining slave ships until 1754, when he had a stroke. Then he began studying for the priesthood and was ordained in 1764. “Amazing Grace” was published in 1779, and he wrote his first abolitionist tract in 1788, four decades after his conversion. So his transformation did not happen “the hour I first believed”, but played over the course of a lifetime.

Now, at this point it would be easy to stop and conclude that I’ve debunked the whole born-again idea, so we can ignore it and go on. But that’s not where I’m headed. Instead, I’d like to hone in on what exactly does happen in that first hour. Why do people like John Newton decades later still celebrate their “moment” of conversion, when they themselves must know just how many insights and how much hard work still had to happen? And the answer seems to be that while your whole life doesn't completely change in an instant, what you can do in an instant is turn around.

Moses did not become Moses the moment that he saw the burning bush. But after that experience, his life could never be the same. Suddenly he was on a new path, and eventually that path went somewhere.

This description fits with the testimonials you can hear today from people in 12-step programs. The traditional bottoming-out story, when the addict realizes that life can’t go on this way, resembles the Christian born-again testimonial in many respects. But the addict does not instantly transform. Quite the opposite, often the idea that change will be quick and easy is exactly what he needs to let go of. Part of turning around is realizing what a long, hard road now lies ahead.

It turns out that a major influence on the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous was William James’ account of conversion experiences. In particular, the vagueness of the “higher power” in 12-step programs comes from James’ observation that conversion experiences are universal, and depend barely at all on particular doctrines. The story of a spiritual crisis that resolves in a moment of renewal can be told in any religion.

In fact, if you listen to an atheist’s story of the moment when he escaped religion, you may well hear an affect that would otherwise be described as religious fervor. Whatever the content of the new belief system might be, suddenly there is a new way to look at life. Old barriers fall, old burdens can be cast aside, and new possibilities open up.

Unitarian Universalists also tell stories of crisis and renewal, but we don’t do it in any organized way. Former UUA President (and current interim co-president) William Sinkford has talked about finding unsuspected inner strength and spiritual depth while sitting by his son’s hospital bed, wondering if he would live.

In her book Blessing the World, UU theologian Rebecca Parker told of a crisis that led her to walk toward the waterfront late at night, planning to drown herself. What she found when she got there, though, was not the deserted lakeside park she had pictured, but a meeting of the local astronomy club with their telescopes, all eager to show her what they found beautiful and wonderful. “In a world where people get up in the middle of the night to looks at stars,” she writes, “I could not end my life.“ A central premise of all the essays in her book, it says in the introduction, is “that moments of despair can be opportunities for spiritual and theological breakthrough.”

In fact, modern Universalism begins in the 1700s with a series of born-again experiences that — from an Evangelical point of view — went astray. Trailblazers like George de Benneville and Hosea Ballou went through the spiritual crises that the fire-and-brimstone sermons of that era were supposed to ignite, but instead of leading to a sense of God’s personal love for them, and assurance of their own personal salvation, their crises resolved with an experience of God’s universal love, assuring the salvation of everyone.

Clearly, the Holy Spirit misfired.

But that bit of our history brings us back to the central question: For those of us who no longer share a belief in a God who takes direct action in the world, where can the energy to renew our lives come from? Is it also part of a naturalistic explanation, or are we left to either return to Christianity or gin up our own transforming power?

Here’s my hypothesis about one possible source of transformational energy: Dissatisfaction has a way of sneaking up on a person. You aren’t usually thrilled with your life one day and then in despair about it the next. So as the course of life slowly diverges from your hopes, one natural reaction is denial: Dissatisfaction, you tell yourself, is just a mood. Everything is fine. Life is under control, or soon will be. Any deviations from the ideal are temporary, incidental, and not my fault.

But as dissatisfaction grows, the denial of it has to grow as well. What begins as minor dissembling and a few omissions can turn into a 24/7 pretense of a happy life. And since part of pretending is pretending that you are not pretending, you can be completely unaware of just how much effort goes into maintaining that illusion. And when the things that are supposed to make you happy actually don’t, the natural reaction is to try harder. Maybe if I just did them right, did them perfectly, then everything would be OK. If I were just smarter, richer, more attractivemore vibrant, more lovable … then it would all work.

So when the crisis comes and pretense collapses, there is a hidden benefit: All the energy you have been putting into denial comes free again. Everything can just be what it is now, and doesn’t need to be explained away. Your castles in the air have fallen, but you also no longer need to hold them up.

In the period of despair that comes between the collapse and the beginning of renewal, it can be hard to notice that freed-up energy or appreciate the extent of it. I doubt Paul was feeling terribly energetic during those three days when he was sitting blind in Damascus. But once the process of renewal began, the energy to make a new life was available.

One final aspect of the born-again experience that I have yet to translate this morning is the one suggested by the word grace: the sense of being loved and nurtured and forgiven by some external power. When we are in denial, we often project the need for that denial onto the people around us. To the extent that we realize we are pretending, we tell ourselves that we do it for them. If the important people in our lives only knew what we are really like, if they suspected how unhappy, how angry, how depressed, how afraid, or how guilty we feel deep inside; if they knew what complete and total failures we really are, how little we resemble the people we pretend to be, they would drop us like a hot rock.

Or so we think.

But sometimes the exact opposite is what turns out to be true. The people who love us may be both better and smarter than we give them credit for. They may already see through us. They may already be rooting for us to confront our demons, to embrace our potential, and to become the person that is inside us waiting to come out. To the extent they cooperate in our denial, they may do so because we need it, not because they do.

The New Testament God, the loving all-knowing being who is patiently waiting to forgive us and welcome us back home if we would only ask, is both a symbol and a projection of that possibility. Accepting the perfect love of this divine archetype can be a step toward accepting the imperfect, human love of others, and ultimately, the deeply flawed love that we might someday have for ourselves. As Lewis the Dauphin says about his intended bridein Shakespeare’s King John, “I do protest I never loved myself till now infixed I beheld myself drawn in the flattering table of her eye.”

So, pulling this all together, I think Unitarian Universalism ought to be about more than a long list of small improvements we should make in our lives, or of projects that good people ought to contribute their energy and resources to. Now and then it ought to bring us up short, and ask us what — on the largest possible scale — we are doing with our lives. If we don’t change direction, we’re likely to wind up where we’re headed. Where is that? How do we feel about it?

And thinking outside of the box of our current identity, who could we be? Who have we thought about being, imagined being, wished we could become? Is there some tiny part of our lives in which we already are that better person? What’s stopping us from breaking down the barriers that keep our better selves from changing everything?

Changing everything is a big job. It doesn’t happen overnight. But if you start, if you turn around, you may be surprised how much energy suddenly comes free for the work of transformation, and how many people will support you in it. Those who love you, and who will love you, may have seen this truer, more authentic version long before you did, and have been waiting to meet you for a long, long time.

Closing Words

The closing words are by Sara Moore Campbell: "We receive fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight. Let us gather them up for the precious gifts that they are, and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown."