Saturday, February 25, 2023

Delight in Each Other: Democracy as a Covenantal Relationship

 a service presented at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church
in Bedford, Massachusetts
February 19, 2023

Opening Words 

The opening words are from the sermon John Winthrop preached on board the Arbella, to the colonists on their way to found the new town 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."

Time for All Ages: Stone Soup 

One day a traveler came to a village, pulling a cart behind him. In the cart 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 cart, looked in the pot, 
and said, “You don’t seem to have any food with you, so I think you may have 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 anybody who wants one.” 

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 the villagers 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 getting 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. And as they listened to him, their mouths watered and their stomachs growled. 

“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 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 offered. 

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 in a cloth, 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 indeed the most wonderful soup they had ever tasted, and every word the traveler had said about it was perfectly true. 


I’m Doug Muder. As you might guess from my name, I’m of German ancestry. Large numbers of Germans were already coming to the American colonies in the 1700s, and my direct ancestors began arriving in the 1840s. And so, whenever people start debating who is or isn’t a “real” American, my status never comes into question. 

If you are similarly privileged, I recommend this exercise: Page back to the era when people like you first started coming here, and see what was being said about them then. When I did that, I found this letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to Peter Collinson in 1753 about the threat that German immigration posed to the 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 the Assembly, 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. As far back as de Tocqueville, it has been observed that Americans are united more by a set of beliefs than by ethnicity or sect. The canon that defines that so-called American creed has never been codified, but I’ve collected a few texts that I think you will all recognize. 

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 inalienable 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 says a little more about why governments are instituted: “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 … 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.” 

The final reading is by Barack Obama’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who, when she doesn’t have a job that takes her elsewhere lives in Concord. She may look and sound like a lifelong American, but she is an immigrant. She came from Ireland at the age of 8, and wasn’t naturalized until adulthood. 

In her autobiography The Education of an Idealist 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.” 


As many of you probably know, I write a weekly political blog where the topic of democracy often comes up. 

One downside of looking at the news week-by-week, as I do, or day-by-day, as many cable news shows do, is that it’s easy to focus on the latest threats to democracy, whatever they happen to be: Say, election denial, or a violent attempt to overturn an election (like the one in Brazil last month or here two years ago), or a voter suppression law, or gerrymandering, or an assault on the free press. A short-term view tends to make us reactive: Democracy is under attack. How can we defend? 

But this morning I want to take a longer view and think about the health of democracy. Not who is attacking it and how, but what do we need to shore up and rebuild? Not what is tearing democracy down, but what makes democracy work in the first place? 

Health is often more mysterious than disease, and I believe that’s the case here. Some very important things about democracy aren’t well understood or appreciated, even by people who value it highly, like Unitarian Universalists. 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: holding elections, having a Congress, giving courts the power to uphold human rights.

That kind of thinking has led well-intentioned people astray time and time again, for a very simple reason: If you have military control over someone else’s land, as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as the European powers did in their former colonies, then it’s not hard to impose a process.You can assemble a constitutional convention, guarantee that the first set of votes are counted accurately, and leave behind an elected government operating under a constitution that promises human rights and the rule of law. 

Presto! You’ve created a democracy. 

But again and again, those externally imposed democracies have failed, because the processes of democracy are empty 
unless a Spirit of Democracy animates them. Anyone with enough power can set up a democratic process. But only the people themselves can infuse that process with a democratic spirit. 

That sounds a little mystical, so I should probably 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 criminal case. In the beginning I wasn’t thrilled to be there, and I doubt that my colleagues were either. Who is, really? I doubt many people get the summons and say, “Oh great! 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 weigh the law’s just demands against the defendant’s rights. 

None of us had a personal stake in the outcome. We didn’t know the defendant or anyone else connected with the alleged crime. If we had not caught the spirit, our deliberations might have become a rote performance. We might have listened to the witnesses half-heartedly and then just voted our preconceived opinions about crime or the kind of people who live in that neighborhood. We might have gone along with the majority just to get it over with. 

But we did catch the spirit, and we did our job well. We listened intently, both to the evidence and to each other. We thought hard about the case, and as we discussed it, several of us changed our minds. And even though we voted to convict, if I am ever on trial, I hope I get a jury like us. 

But whether we understand the importance of spirit or not, the people threatening democracy do. It’s striking how many of their attacks leave the processes standing, but hollow out their meaning. Russia, for example, still preserves the form of campaigns and elections, but any opposition leader who gets too popular, if he’s not just killed, may have to choose between exile and prison. Hungary still has the appearance of a free press, but nearly all the major news outlets have been bought by allies of the government. In a gerrymandered state like Wisconsin or North Carolina, voters can cast ballots however they like, but whatever they choose, the party that drew the maps has locked itself into power. 

The worldview that underlies such empty democratic rituals is one of deep cynicism. Justice can’t be blind. Government is always corrupt. Science is fake. News is just propaganda. There is no shame in lying, because everyone lies. 

And none of that 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. Only power is real. 

Having invoked that cynicism, I’ll try to dispel it with a second positive example, this time from one more document out of the American canon, the Mayflower Compact, which bound together the 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 no external power can make you do. The pilgrims “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”, and work towards “the general good of the colony”. 

What they’re are saying, in other words, is that we have decided to be a People together. Rather than submit to some external authority, we commit to govern ourselves. And rather than use that government to exploit each other, we pledge to treat each other as equals and seek the common 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 committed to freedom of the press or one man one vote or trial by jury. All those abstractions only come alive when we are committed to each other, and to all the people who share 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. 

Today I’m mainly talking about American democracy and the American covenant. But an idea I want you to hold in the back of your minds is that this applies to First Parish too. For more than two years, Covid has really been doing a number on our ability to delight in each other. Our democratic processes have continued to function, but we’ve also seen how brittle they can become when they can’t be anchored in a larger consensus formed during coffee hours and potlucks and concerts, or while working together on an auction or a plant fair or a haunted house. 

All that has been restarting lately, and just in time. In a little over two months, the search committee will be introducing us to a candidate to be our senior minister. Then we’ll have decisions to make, and maybe a new era to kick off. It will be an exciting time, and it will also be challenging. 

But if we remember our covenant, stay true to each other, and take advantage of whatever opportunities we can find to delight in each other, then I’m pretty sure we’ll be OK. 

So back to America. If democracy depends on its covenant, then we need to do some hard thinking about the American covenant and how to keep it strong. Fundamentally, a covenant is two things: a group of people, and the commitment they make to each other. And so the health of our democracy depends on finding the right answers to two foundational questions: Who is an American? And what is this “America” that we have come together to form? 

The Samantha Power reading described our ritual of naturalization, through which we induct new people into our covenant. And as she makes clear, that ritual is not empty for the new Americans themselves. It’s also deeply meaningful for the people who preside; I could have offered any number of readings testifying to that. 

But one of the primary avenues of attack on our democracy is to hollow that ritual out. Too often today, we hear people talk about “real Americans”, a group of people different from (and presumably much smaller than) 
American citizens as the law defines them. The definition of a “real American” changes from one speaker to the next. Maybe you have to be white. Maybe you have to be Christian. Maybe you have to be native-born, or speak English with a certain accent. You may become less “real” if you turn out to be gay or trans or socialist. 

Once you accept this notion that some American citizens are not “real”, you are on your way to overthrowing democracy. Because how can an election be legitimate unless the legal voters make the same choice the “real” voters would make? And if they don’t, doesn’t it make sense to suppress the votes of the “unreal” Americans, or gerrymander them into districts that minimize their power, or find some loophole in the process that allows the “real” candidate to take office in spite of getting fewer legal votes? Ultimately, wouldn’t even violence be justified? 

So to defend democracy, we need to stand up for the idea that naturalization is real, the birthright citizenship promised by the 14th Amendment is real, and nothing about your sexual preference or gender identity or political philosophy makes you any less real of an American. We need to hang onto that vision of Samantha Power hugging the Hispanic woman to her left and the Russian man to her right, because “We were all Americans now.” 

To a large extent, that vision is true to our history. At the time of the Founders, the challenge was to get people to come here, not to keep them out. And so we barely had immigration laws at all until after the Civil War. 

Some people like to claim that their ancestors came here “the right way”. But there was no wrong way for my ancestors to come in the 1840s. They just showed up and survived a few years, and then they were Americans. 

What united Americans then, and has continued to unite us through the centuries, was not ethnicity or language or religion, but that vision expressed in Jefferson’s Declaration: Everyone comes to 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. Government power derives not from God or the ancestors or any other external source, but from the consent of the governed. 

As President Washington told the Hebrew Congregation of Newport: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” 

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 you’re as American as anybody else. 

Last week, Lisa Maria mentioned some of the metaphors Americans have used to describe this joinable covenant: a melting pot, or (as she prefers) a patchwork quilt, where immigrants keep their prior identities, but (in Samantha Power’s words) “make them American”. In the same vein, I’ve also heard America described as a tossed salad. Personally, though, I see America as a stone soup. 

Think about the mistake the villagers are making at the beginning of that story, the one the traveller tricks them out of. Each of them has a little food, but they all imagine that their own stash is the only one. And so they look at each other as mouths to feed, and not as people who might have something to offer. 

Again and again, immigrants have come to our shores looking like they have nothing. But again and again, that has turned out not to be true. They brought their talents. They brought their culture. They brought their energy. And they made it American. We haven’t always treated our immigrants well. But America at its best has always eventually realized that these aren’t just mouths to feed. These are people with something they can add to our soup. 

That unofficial American creed also goes a long way to answer the second fundamental question, to define the “America” our covenant is trying to form: 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 who defend the same freedoms we want for ourselves, but not seeking empire or dominance. 

But as I paint that patriotic picture, I can already hear the objections rising in your minds: How can we reconcile such a positive vision with the actual history of the United States? 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 reconcile it with the way we treat those who are coming to our border right now, looking for help because they have nowhere else to go? 

Those questions point to the second argument we have to win, if we are going to defend democracy: The America that defines our covenant — we can’t look for it in the past. It is a goal for our future. There is no moment we can look back to and say, “That was America. Let us make America great again.”

The America that defines our covenant is an ideal 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 the America of history has fallen short of the American ideal? 

In 1935, Langston Hughes saw the vision 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.” 

His poem laments not just his own oppression, but all the people America has failed. And yet he does not give in to cynicism, or reject the ideal of America in scorn or disgust. For Hughes, our repeated failures only reinforce his commitment 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 vision of America today in many ways that we fell short two hundred years ago, 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. 

Summing up, to keep our democracy healthy, we need to renew our commitment both to each other and to the ideal America we want to create. But how? Every day, whether you get your news from the Left or the Right, you are reminded how divided we are, how polarized. So how can we renew our covenant, even with people on the other side of the partisan gap? “Delight in each other,” John Winthrop said. That seems so distant now. 

In his recent book The Persuaders, Anand Giridharadas describes the work of a Russian internet troll farm that created countless fake American social media identities in order to influence American politics and culture. Their goal was not to convince us to support Russia, but rather to turn us against one another. 

“The troll farm … had encouraged the view, already on the rise, and not without roots in reality, that the basic activity of democratic life, the changing of minds, had become futile work. … [It] wanted Americans to regard each other as immovable, brainwashed, of bad faith, not worth energy, disloyal, repulsive.” 

That belief is easy to find today on both sides of our political divide: Our opponents are not just wrong, they are irredeemable. But I want to close by pointing out that this hardened attitude violates our Universalist tradition, which refuses to write people off just because they don’t see what we see. 

Leaders may act in bad faith, but many follow them in good faith, believing what they have been told. The solutions they ask for may be misguided, but the problems they see in their lives may still be real, and deserve our compassion. 

I know how hard it can be to look past the name-calling, trolling, and bullying to try to understand the genuine disappointments and hurts fueling that behavior. But no matter how frustrating and annoying such people may be, they are Americans, and we are in covenant with them. 

If we’re going to renew our covenant and preserve our democracy, we need to hold onto our Universalist faith that no one is beyond redemption. And that — no matter how stubborn they are or how many times they have been hoodwinked — no one is completely incapable of seeing Truth. 

Closing Words 

The closing words are by Langston Hughes 

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be

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