Oct 4, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, September 29, 2019
Democracy is in crisis. This week brought what will almost certainly be the start of an impeachment inquiry against the sitting President of the United States. The week’s events were prompted by a whistleblower’s complaint that alleged: “that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
I will leave it to Congress to adjudicate whether or not the whistleblower’s complaint justifies the impeachment of the President. And I will leave it to the pundits to speculate on whether or not Congress should impeach the President. Instead, I want us to investigate the nature of this crisis in democracy. It is not a crisis that suddenly developed last week. It has crisis that has been going on for a long time. If you doubt this, let me offer you a single observation: if the House of Representatives ultimately proceeds to draft impeachment articles it will be the third time in forty-five years that they have been drafted against a sitting President. We might well ask what is going on.
One place to start our inquiry is with the opening statements of Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes at the testimony of acting Director of National Intelligence Joe Macguire. They are a study in contrasts. Schiff, you might know, is the Committee chairman and a Democrat. Nunes, you may remember, is the ranking Republican on the Committee.
Schiff began by outlining the nature of the presidential oath of office. He stated that the President was to faithfully execute their office and defend the Constitution. And he claimed that the President cannot defend the Constitution if they do not defend the country. He said, “where there is no country there is no office to execute.” The Constitution is not merely a piece of paper, he observed. Instead, it is, he stated, “the institutions of our democracy... the system of checks and balances... and the rule of law.”
Nunes started his opening statement in a completely different place. He made no reference to the Constitution or the President’s oath of office. Instead, he said, “I want to congratulate the Democrats on the rollout of their latest information warfare operation against the President, and their extraordinary ability to once again enlist the mainstream media in their campaign.” He continued by claiming that the Democrats stood guilty of every crime or misdeed of which the current President has been accused. In 2016 it was not the President but “the Democrats themselves [who] were colluding with the Russians.” Today, he alleged, “there are numerous examples of Democrats” who are doing what they accuse the President of doing, “pressuring Ukrainians to take actions that would help... or hurt... [their] political opponents.”
The two men appear to inhabit different realities. In one, the President is a fundamental threat to democracy. In the other, the Democratic Party is subverting and destroying democracy. My own perspective is somewhat different. The crisis is with democracy itself. The President is one manifestation of the crisis. And the Democratic Party is another.
Democracy is not a set of institutions. It is not the Supreme Court, the Executive Branch, or the United States Congress. It is not the Constitution. It is not the United States of America, the state of Texas, Harris County, or the city of Houston. It is not going to a polling place and voting for a political representative.
Democracy is a fluid set of practices. In essence, it is found whenever a group of people embark together upon the project of self-rule. It is found whenever, in the words of philosopher Richard Rorty, people engage in the struggle “against bosses, against oligarchies.” Oligarchies are societies in which power rests with a small group of people. The meaning of bosses is probably rather obvious. Rorty uses it to prompt the questions: Can a society actually be democratic if people do not have democracy at work? Can a society be democratic if there is vast economic inequality? Can a society be democratic if it is essentially ruled by a group of self-perpetuating elites? Consider how money is used to buy political influence. The late comedian Robin Williams had a novel suggestion about how campaign donations should be accounted for amongst professional politicians. He said, “The voters should know who you represent, and if you represent special-interest groups, we should be like NASCAR. ...be in the Senate with our suits on, and if you’re backed by something, it’d be like little patches like they wear in NASCAR.”
To stand “Against bosses, against oligarchies,” to invoke Rorty, and to name democracy as a set of practices, is to recognize something vital about it. It is come to understand that democracy is not a merely political system. It is something you have to practice. It is something you have to do. And here is where we run into the core of the crisis in democracy we are facing. We do not practice it. Almost nowhere in American society do we engage in the project of self-rule. It is rarely found in our schools. It is largely absent from our workplaces. It does not exist in many of our neighborhoods or in most of our churches. In truth, much of American society is constructed precisely to prevent self-rule and to preserve the power of elites. There are massive monopolies that perpetuate economic inequality. The needs and safety of local communities are often sacrificed so that the owners of these monopolies might profit. And all the while we continue to talk about American democracy.
The problem goes back to the very beginning of the country. The problem is, as the historian Gordon Wood has claimed, that many of the nation’s founders used “democratic rhetoric... to explain and justify... [an] aristocratic system.” The Senate and the Supreme Court, in particular, were designed explicitly to stifle the self-rule of the majority and ensure the continuing power of the wealthy minority. This should not be surprising. The leaders of the American Revolution were largely wealthy landowners. Many of them owed their wealth to the exploitation of enslaved Africans. They did not want a true democracy. They wanted a society modeled after ancient republican Rome. Prior to the advent of Roman emperor, Rome was a society ruled by the Roman Senate. The Senate was an elite institution whose members held their seats for life. They came to hold their offices through a system that explicitly gave extra weight to wealthy voters. Rome was, in essence, an oligarchy rather than a democracy.
In ancient Rome, the Senate’s proponents maintained that it should be an elite institution because they believed that only the elite was fit to govern. Only the Roman elite, these men reasoned, had the leisure in which they could cultivate the knowledge, the skills, and the personal integrity to effectively rule their society. Everyone else, the ordinary people who struggled to pay their rent, who worked for wages, who farmed small plots of land, was too caught up in the struggle for life to acquire the necessary character traits to govern society.
Looking to ancient Rome for inspiration, the majority of the founders of this country came to believe that it was only elites who could successfully cultivate what they called public virtue. Their idea of public virtue was “endearing and benevolent passion,” as one of them put it. This passion came from “charity” and was based on the cultivation of private virtues like benevolence and truthfulness. It also required that one respected the established social hierarchy and knew their place in the social order. Public virtue could not be practiced by someone who was hateful, envious, or greedy. Challenging the social hierarchy, or failing to cultivate the appropriate private virtues, meant that someone would quickly lose, as one of the founders put it, their “sense of a connection to the general system” and with it their “benevolence.” When that happened the “desire and freedom of doing good ceased.”
Put differently, if someone challenged the bosses and the oligarchs, they threatened the social order. Their private virtues were out of alignment. They coveted social positions and economic goods that did not belong to them. And that rendered them ineligible to serve the republic. The founders created the Senate and the Supreme Court, in particular, precisely to ensure that the elites would continue to rule. If you doubt this, consider that the average net worth of a Senator is over three million dollars. If you doubt this, consider how routinely the Supreme Court rules in favor of wealthy corporations and against local communities or individuals. If you doubt this, consider the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission in which money was equated with free speech. It was a reminder that under our system, in the words of Senator Mitt Romney, “Corporations are people, my friend.”
This is the crisis we are facing. The sad reality is that we have conflated the rule of an elite with a democracy. The stark truth is that there are few places in our lives where we practice democracy.
Democracy could be understood as the political application of Jesus’s words in Luke 17:20-21. There he is recorded as having said, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed. No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!;’ because the Kingdom of God is among you.” Democracy is the constant practice of negotiating self-rule. It is never permanently established. It is always coming into being. It found in a set of practices, not frozen in an institution. It is the attempt amongst a group of people to figure out how to collectively meet their needs, set a vision for their community, and move together into the future. We might say that it is the effort of a group of people to create the kingdom among themselves.
Most people have little direct experience with democracy. In general, people think that if they vote or donate money to a political cause they have done their civic duty. But usually this means continuing to let the entrenched and wealthy, the powers and principalities, run society. It is only be organizing together, by directly attempting to govern ourselves, that we can experience democracy and, possibly, move towards a more democratic society.
One place I have learned about democracy is within the Unitarian Universalist movement. Unitarian Universalist congregations are self-governing institutions. It is you, the members, who decide the direction you want the congregation to take. Clergy like me might try to inspire but First Church is ultimately your congregation. This is true whether you are served by an interim minister who will only be with you for a couple of years. And it is true when you are served by a minister like Bob Schaibly who was here for twenty years. Ministers come and go but you, the members, remain.
First Church is governed by its Board of Directors. The Board is nothing like the Senate. Any member of the congregation can be elected to serve on the Board. Terms are limited and people rotate off each year. What is more, the Board’s ultimate authority rests in the congregation. It can set direction but you, the congregation, ultimately set First Church’s agenda when you do things like call settled ministers, pass vision and mission statements, and change your constitution.
I was reminded of the dynamics of congregational self-governance on Wednesday when the Board and I agreed upon our goals for the year. One of the goals that the Board voted on was the chartering of a Transformation Committee. This committee will report to the Board. Its job will be to lead in the congregation in the work of disrupting and dismantling white supremacy inside of and outside of our walls and building a more diverse and multiracial beloved community. Hopefully, it will prepare the congregation as a whole to hold a vote on whether or not to endorse the proposed eighth principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The proposed principle reads, “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
If you adopt it, it will be part of your long work towards becoming a more multiracial congregation. That work began as early as 1954 when you were the first historically white congregation to vote to integrate. That was an act of self-governance that occurred because democracy is a central part of our religious practice as Unitarian Universalists.
Let me share with you a story from another Unitarian Universalist congregation about how our tradition practices democracy. It comes from James Luther Adams, one of the great Unitarian Universalist theologians of the twentieth century.
In the late 1940s Adams was a Board member at the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. Unlike many pre-1960s churches, First Unitarian did not have any formal bar to people of color joining the congregation. It also did not have any people of color as its members.
Under the leadership of the congregation’s senior minister a resolution was finally passed at a congregational meeting. It read we “take it upon ourselves to invite our friends of other races and colors who are interested in Unitarianism to join our church and to participate in all our activities." Hardly, revolutionary sounding stuff. It was divisive and possibly even radical in 1940s Chicago.
Adams relates that in the lead up to the congregational vote there was a contentious Board meeting that lasted into the wee hours. One openly racist member of the Board complained that the minister was “preaching too many sermons on race relations.” Adams writes, “So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about... [Jews] and blacks?’
‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’
Then the barrage opened, ‘Will you tell us what is the purpose of a church anyway?’
‘I’m no theologian. I don’t know.’
‘But you have ideas, you are... a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of the church. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.’ The questioning continued, and items on the agenda for the evening were ignored.
At about one o’clock in the morning our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. And our friend gave a remarkable statement regarding the nature of our fellowship. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is... Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’
Someone... suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘mazing grace... how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’”
Democracy is a religious practice. Let me suggest that in Adams story we find the basic elements of religious practice. In order for something to qualify as a religious practice it has to have an element of practice. It needs to be something that you do. Like most things we do in life, and especially in community, democracy is a learned behavior. You have to learn how to do it. Think about the other, perhaps more blatantly familiar, kinds of religious practice: prayer, meditation, reading the scripture, or sacred dance. Each of these is learned behavior. You have to learn how to pray. You might spend years trying to master meditation--or coming to understand that meditation isn’t something that you master. The same is true with democracy. In order to practice it, you have to learn it. To meditate you need to learn how to breath, how to sit, how to unfocus your mind. To practice democracy you need to learn rules of order, how to run a meeting, how to bring silenced voices into the conversation, when to speak and when to keep still.
Like other religious practices, democracy contains within it the possibility of personal and social transformation. Our racist friend ended up realizing after hours of unpleasant debate that “the purpose [of the church] is to get hold of people like me and change them.” And he realized “I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.” And First Chicago became, as you may know, one of the most racially diverse Unitarian congregations in the country and a leader in the Northern civil rights movement.
The transformation of First Chicago has been on my heart this month we have been discussing the three great disruptions, the three great crises, of our hour. As I have mentioned before, this year in worship we are acknowledging that we, as a human species, face three interrelated crises that threaten our continued human existence. These are: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy.
In some sense, each of these is connected to the underlying crisis in democracy. That crisis is that this society has been continuously ruled by entrenched elites since its inception. Elites have cloaked their rule in the rhetoric of democracy, claiming as the current President does, to serve the “forgotten men and women of our country” even as they pass legislation that solidifies corporate rule. They use the word freedom to mean freedom for the wealthy to do what they will while the mass of society is left disempowered and marginalized.
Historically, they spoke of freedom while they enslaved Africans. They spoke of democracy while they ensured that people of color could not have the vote and disrupt their manufactured white supremacy. Today, many of them speak of democracy and do nothing to confront the country’s skyrocketing economic inequality. In the last forty-five years inequality--the gap between the richest and poorest in society--has grown more than almost any other time in the country’s history. In our contemporary society there are people like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates who are so wealthy that they own more than whole segments of the country. This gross inequality almost certainly has something to do with the county’s political instability and the crisis we find ourselves in.
This inequality is not only connected to white supremacy and the crisis in democracy, it is related to the climate emergency. As journalists like Naomi Klein have carefully detailed, the entire industry of climate denial has been funded by energy tycoons such as Charles and David Koch. They owe their fortune to the fossil fuel industry. The have funded the climate denial industry to the tune of millions of dollars in order to stave off regulation that might impinge their ability to make more money.
Democracy is in crisis. It is in crisis because our system of government was designed to perpetuate the rule of the elites. The climate is in crisis. It is in crisis because our government continues to serve those elites. It passes legislation and issues policies designed to ensure that wealth from fossil fuels continue to accumulate. It fails to pass legislation that protects the Earth upon which we all depend because, I can only assume, the rich believe that they will never be poor. And that no matter how despoiled the environment they can always buy their way into safety and comfort.
We can overcome these crises only if we commit ourselves to the religion of democracy and engage in the practice of collective self-rule. A our racist friend from earlier observed, this religion of democracy gets ahold of people and changes them. It is not the self-rule of some but the self-rule of all. One of the places that this struggle has long manifested itself is within the labor movement. Our first reading this morning “Sermon on the Common” comes from the great labor organizer and poet Arturo Giovannitti. He wrote it after helping to organize a strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts that brought together people of all races to struggle for their collective good. It was a strike not led by an elite but by the workers themselves. To coordinate amongst more than twenty thousand people they formed a committee in which there were representatives of all the city’s ethnicities. The vision of self-rule he saw in that struggle inspired him to write:
Ye are the light of the world. There was darkness in all the
ages when the torch of your will did not blaze forth,
and the past and the future are full of radiance that
cometh from your eyes.
I know that in these days, as we face the impending crisis of impeachment, many of us feel like the poet Fatimah Asghar:
I build & build
& someone takes it away.
It is easy to feel that so many of society’s achievements are crumbling beneath us. It is easy to feel that we have lost so much that we have worked for. This may be true. But it is also true that there is another possibility. That we “are the light of the world;” that we can learn to practice true democracy and engage in collective self-rule. That we can learn to practice in our congregations and elsewhere in our lives. And we take this religious practice of democracy, this collective experiment in self-governance, and spill it over into society--becoming a reforming energy that challenges rule by elites.
If you doubt me, I invite you to picture this. Friday before last, at least seventy-five members of this congregation gathered to support the youth-led climate strike. A sea of yellow shirts, siding with love, children, parents, elders. Democracy not in crisis but in action. A community mobilized for democratic renewal to confront the crises of the hour. The religion of democracy made manifest. A religious tradition that understands, in the words of our closing hymn, “that it is time now.” It is time to move to self-rule and finally bringing about a true self-governance that so that we might confront the climate crisis and disrupt white supremacy.
That it may be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Nov 5, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 4, 2018
This is the Sunday before a truly contentious election. Many of us are deeply concerned about the future direction of this country. Some of us fear that it is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. The path forward for most, if not all of us, seems unclear. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday the United States will remain a divided country. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday, democracy in the United States and throughout the world will continue to be in crisis.
One aspect of this crisis is that it is difficult for people with different political opinions to talk to each other. Many of us self-stratify. We choose to live in communities where most people hold similar values to us. I am guilty of this myself. When I moved to Houston from Boston I selected the Montrose neighborhood. It is near the church. There are lots of art museums, restaurants, bars, and cute shops. It has good public transit. It is walkable. It is also a liberal enclave.
People like to ask me how I am coping with the culture shock of moving from the Northeast to the South. When they do, I have to tell them that so far it does not seem that different. I do so with the knowledge that the reason why it does not seem that different is that most of the places I find myself in are places filled with people like myself: liberal or left educated professionals. In such places I find that most people more-or-so less hold similar political, religious, and social values.
Last week I found myself at a Halloween party where not everyone held similar political views. And I was reminded of how difficult it is for people in this country to talk to each other. There I was, hanging out on a new friends’ porch as torrents of rain came and the kids ran from house-to-house trick-or-treating in increasingly soggy costumes. Someone came up to introduce himself to me. He seemed friendly enough. He asked me if I had tried the frito pie. I confessed that I did not know what frito pie was. He explained to me that it was a combination of frito chips, chili, and cheese--and pointed over to the table where all three items sat waiting to be mixed together.
Another person entered the conversation. Somehow, the topic shifted, and we found ourselves talking about the horrific events of the last week. It came up that I am in favor of some kind of gun control. And that completely ended the conversation. Full stop. No attempt to find common ground. No discussion. The man I had been talking to said something like, “The Second Amendment is what it is” and walked off. He was not rude or anything. He just made it clear that we had nothing more to talk about.
Have you had a similar experience? Or does this experience seem familiar: You post something political online. Pretty soon your Facebook wall or your Twitter stream becomes a mess of vitriol and bile. You unfriend your aunt. You block your cousin. No one convinces anyone of anything. Instead, everyone retrenches in their own enclaves. Or you decide to embrace the old maxim and refrain from discussing politics at the dinner table.
Some philosophers argue that this dilemma is inherent to our contemporary culture. Different moral and political positions are conceptually incommensurable. That is a fancy way of saying is that there is no rational way to sort out a disagreement between them. They begin from different premises or are rooted in different core values.
This is something you may have experienced on those occasions when you have been able to engage someone from a different political perspective in a debate. I remember one experience I had like this when I was on an airplane. I was on my way to present a paper at some academic conference. My seatmate struck up a conversation. He asked me what I did and where I was going. I told him. It turned out that he was a classics major from a conservative Christian college.
We spent the next two or three hours discussing philosophy, theology, and the classical canon. On the surface it appeared that we influenced by many of the same thinkers. Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Ovid, Augustine... We had read and appreciated each of them. But, it is like the Greek poet Sappho wrote:
If you are squeamish
Don’t prod the
We failed to follow Sappho’s warning not to go deeper. As the conversation continued, we discovered we did not agree on anything. Despite our common canon, we actually shared no ground. Any position that one of us took the other found objectionable. We did not agree upon racial justice, economics, women’s rights, GLBT rights, federal funding for higher education, the reality of climate change, prison reform, the origin of human life, gun control, the nature of good and evil, the separation of church and state...
There is a lot of ground that can be covered in a few hours. Yet each time we approached a subject we found we had completely incompatible arguments. Take abortion, an issue in American political life that has long proved divisive. I made an argument that ran something like this: In a free society, each person has the right to control their own body. An embryo is part of the mother’s body. Since a mother has a right to do what she wants with her body she has the right to freely make a decision about whether or not she will have an abortion. Therefore, abortion is morally permissible.
My seatmate started from a different place. He claimed that an embryo is actually an identifiable human being. As such, it was accorded rights of its own. The chief of these rights is the right not to be murdered. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.*
Our positions were, as I suggested earlier, conceptually incommensurable. They were based in different assumptions about what it means to be human. There was no way to rationally reconcile them. It was almost as if we were talking different languages. Actually, it was worse than that. Es posible por me decir el mismo cosa en Español que digo en Inglés. It is possible for me to say the same thing in Spanish that I say in English. But it was not possible for my seatmate and I to agree on what we meant when we used words that were central to our vocabularies. The words like life, murder, and body meant different things to each of us.
Friends, this is where we are right now in our political history. We have reached a point where people cannot agree upon what words mean or what it means to be human. Indeed, this country’s resurgence of white supremacy and nationalism indicates that people cannot even agree upon who is a human being. The poor suffering migrants who are wending their way from Honduras to the United States border are human beings. They breath, they cry, they hunger, they love, they fear, they struggle, the same as anyone in this sanctuary this morning. The same is true of the eleven Jewish elders who were murdered last week as they gathered for worship at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. The same is true of the two black people recently killed in a Kroeger in Kentucky. The same is true of the two women killed at a yoga studio in Florida on Friday. They were all humans with hopes, loves, fears, families, friends, favorite foods, like any of us. And yet, their murderers failed to recognize them as such. Instead, their murderers saw them as something other than human.
It is not just that we cannot agree upon our fundamental values. It is that we cannot agree upon who is a who human being. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan may have argued, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” but apparently, he was wrong. People seem very much to have their own facts. And sure, you might, and I might, argue that certain facts are, well, facts based in an objectively measurable reality but that would be beside the point. We cannot get everyone to agree to what the objectively measurable reality is. For many people, it is an objectively measurable fact that the scriptures--be they the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon--are divinely inspired. For me, they are great works of literature containing much wisdom and not a little foolishness, testaments to the infinite power of human creativity, the luster of poetry that lies within.
The great challenge before us is collectively finding our way out of this mess. And here I could make the observation that there is no historical example of people defeating totalitarianism through debate. And that it has only ever been defeated through mass mobilization. And that it has not always been defeated. And I could list the examples of the great life affirming, antifascist, movements that have stood against totalitarianism in Europe, in Latin America, and in the United States. And I could talk with you about the tragic defeats of those who stood against the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Or the loss of Spain to the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in the 1930s. But I do not think that would bring us any closer to figuring out a way forward that does not reenact the great struggles of the past.
And so, I want to turn to my sermon title, “The Virtues of Conservatism.” It hints at one path that might be available to us, the path of virtue ethics. Ethics is organized around the question, How should I live a good life? This is the question that faces us today, on the Sunday before the election, just as it is a question that we will face next week after all of the ballots have been counted. It is a question that we must answer within the context in which we live, under the threat of rising totalitarianism. It is a question we will answer somewhat differently ten or twenty years from now when the political, cultural, and ecological world we find ourselves in has changed.
Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. It has been favored by some of the great fighters for freedom and justice. Malcolm X was one of the true heroes of the twentieth-century. He taught us to struggle for freedom and justice “by any means necessary.”
Virtue ethics is the third broad school of ethics. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... These traits are called the virtues.
Virtue ethics are favored by many conservatives. Such thinkers tend to treat the virtues as static. There is one meaning to being brave or honest. There is one meaning to compassion. Such thinkers also tend to think that social roles are fixed and that we are best selves when we perform the roles we are given when we pursue the virtues inherent in them. There is one way to be a good, and virtuous, parent, or worker, or child, or spouse or whatever.
Virtue ethicists tend to talk about how the presence of virtue is expressed in character. The conservative intellectual David Brooks writes a lot about the relationship between virtue and character. One of my friends accuses of him being a crypto-moderate, but Brooks speaks for a certain element of patrician conservatives. His interest in virtue ethics is mirrored in other patrician conservatives like William Bennett; Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, he wrote an entire book called “The Book of Virtues.”
But here’s the thing, virtue ethics has a long connection to Unitarian Universalism. It was particularly favored by our Unitarian ancestors. Let me give you an example.
Lately, I have been poking around in the church library. It is something I do instinctually. I have spent enough my life doing historical research that if you put me within smelling distance of an archive I will start digging through it like a pig rooting for truffles.
A couple of weeks I happened across a beat-up pale green volume. Coffee stains on the front, it is marked “Scrap Book.” It contains a selection of newspaper and magazine cuttings about First Church and Unitarianism from the late 1920s through the early 1940s.
One of those articles contains a sermon that was preached when this congregation dedicated its first building here on Fannin and Southmore. The minister was then Thomas Sanders. We have already read the closing paragraph of his sermon. I want to draw our attention to its last sentence, “The church must generate moral power as well as instruct, for salvation is found in the development of character.”
Salvation is found in the development of character. It is about a clear a statement of the classical Unitarian theology of New England as I can imagine. In this view, the purpose of the church is to provide people a moral education so that they can strive towards self-improvement and live good lives. These Unitarians understood themselves to be Christian because they believed, as one wrote, “the character of Christ... sets before us moral perfection.” Christ was someone who had developed perfect character and who tried to teach others how to develop it. By following Christ’s teachings, they thought, people could discover the inner light within and begin to approach what they called “the likeness to God.” The great nineteenth-century Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves, and realize our own likeness to God, by nurturing such virtues.
The virtues for someone like Channing were not unlike the virtues for many contemporary conservative philosophers. They came out of respecting a certain set of fixed social roles. Nineteenth-century New England Unitarians contained many of the country’s mercantile elite. They had much clearer ideas of what it meant to be a Unitarian minister or a banker or a ship’s captain or a wife or a husband or a judge or a student than we do today. I suspect that many of us would disagree with how they understood those social roles. I certainly have no interest in receiving the kind of deference from congregants that a man like Channing could expect. Nor do I am interested in serving the elite in the same way that he did.
But that misses the point, the possibility, that I see in virtue ethics. It allows us to possibly find an entry point into a conversation with those who occupy different political, philosophical, and theological positions. We can probe the writings of Channing and discover what he meant by words like courage. His definition was different than ours. It centered on Jesus. I doubt many contemporary Unitarian Universalists would resonate with his claim that we express our moral freedom by leaving “all for Christ.” And yet, we can recognize that he valued, as we do, the importance of speaking our own truth and of being brave in the face of injustice.
I suspect that the same is true of my seatmate on the airplane. We were able to keep talking because we could at least agree upon which words might be important in our lives, even if we had completely different understandings of them. I was able to ask him, What does it mean to live a good life in your community? And he was able to ask me the same. It is true that our conversation went nowhere. But, unlike the man I met at the party, we were able to keep talking.
I have this inkling, this thought, that it might that the best we can hope for over the long haul is the possibility of staying together in a collective conversation. It is true that the ends, the goals, I seek have a lot more in common with Malcolm X than with the man I was sitting next to on the plane. I am against white supremacy. I am against totalitarianism. I am against economic inequality. I am for the great project of collective liberation, the unleashing of the human spark that can leap each to each.
But it is also true that I suspect that on some level each of us can articulate a vision of the good life. It might not be found in the words we speak. It may only be present in the actions we take. But, nonetheless, I imagine it can found in the lives we try to live and the lives we valorize. I have a suspicion that each of you has some sense of who is a good person and the kind of people you admire. And sometimes, we can even find something to admire, some sense of virtue, in those people we find ourselves in violent disagreement with. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the greatest philosophers in this country’s history. He was able to say that there was “something noble in the figure of Jefferson Davis” even as he denounced Davis’s white supremacy and observed that there was “something fundamentally incomplete about” the standards by which the old Confederate had tried to live.
Such an appeal to virtue ethics might be a foolish hope. But then again, Unitarian Universalism has been labelled a faith without certainty. I would be lying to you if I told you I knew exactly what must be done, today or tomorrow. I know that totalitarianism has only ever been defeated by mass mobilization. But I also know that even as we confront the present horrors of the day we must try to stumble our way forward for the long haul. And that something must change if we are not to endlessly repeat, as it seems we are now, the cycles of totalitarian rise and defeat. And maybe, just maybe, those stumbles include a focus on the common vocabulary that exists across political difference. As David Brooks has observed, virtue ethics “is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness.” And so, I leave you, on this Sunday before the election, not with a clear charge or solid instructions on what you must do but rather with the glimmer of hope that we can seek and find a common vocabulary with those we disagree. I do not hope that we will agree. I only that we might find a way to remain in a conversation.
Maybe then we might each discover the shining light within. Then maybe, just maybe, against all the odds, and the heart break, and the human error, our lives will echo with the words offered by the African American poet Thylias Moss:
You will be the miracle.
You will feed yourself five thousand times.
May those words be true for each of us.
Amen and Blessed.
* My reconstruction of our argument owes something to Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” third edition (Norte Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 7.
Nov 6, 2017
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, November 5, 2017
This past May I celebrated the tenth anniversary of my ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister. I spent the first half of my decade as a clergyman as a parish minister and the last five years in the stilled and musty halls of the academy. I started my ministry in Cleveland in September of 2007. Since, I am serving a parish again in the fall of 2017, I thought this autumnal morning would be a good opportunity to reflect upon some of what I have learned in my ten years as a minister. In his Divinity School Address, Emerson gave this advice to aspiring clergy, “The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life,--life passed through the fire of thought.” Those words were read during my ordination. I have attempted to follow Emerson’s advice and pass my own life through the fire of thought.
As I have, I have come to the conclusion that much of what I have learned as a religious leader can be distilled into two sentences: The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. We are what we do. The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. We are what we do. Neither of these observations is original to me. William Blake, “Man was made for Joy & Woe / And when this we rightly know / Thro the World we safely go / Joy & Woe are woven fine / A Clothing for the soul divine / Under every grief & pine / Runs a joy with silken twine.” To claim we are what we do is to invoke ethical traditions that stretch back to Confucius and Plato.
The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. Some of what I say over the next few minutes might be a little difficult to listen to. If you find it all disturbing I welcome a conversation after the service. I hope that you will listen my words in the spirit they are given. They come from a belief that it is only by confronting the hard parts of life that we can grow as individuals and as a religious community.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I felt called to the ministry because of the Unitarian Universalist tradition’s powerful legacy of social justice work. I wanted to make the world a better place and I thought that one way to do that was as a minister. It came as something of a surprise to me when I realized early in my ministerial training that one of a minister’s central functions is to be present to death. I was barely two months into seminary when I was asked to officiate my first memorial service.
Now, there are only two kinds of memorial services: easy ones and hard ones. The easy ones come at the end of a long and honorable life. The deceased’s family and friends gather one last time together to celebrate all that was and all that has left been behind: the love that remains after death.
Then there are the hard ones: the tragic accidents; the incurable diseases that strike down the youthful; the lives that end all too soon. Memorial services like these bring to me the words of the Greek poet Glykon: “Nothing but laughter, nothing / But dust, nothing but nothing, / No reason why it happens.” I find it impossible to offer an honest rationale, a satisfactory explanation, for why horror has happened to one person and another has escaped it. The best I can do is recognize that our human lives are ever shaped by our choices and the choices of others. So much of the pain we suffer has its origins in deep historical systems of racial, economic, and gendered oppression. And yet, such explanations are unsatisfying, for they all suggest that so much of our lives, and the suffering we experience throughout them, is due to little more than blind chance. “No reason why it happens.”
My first memorial service was a hard one. They had been husband and wife. They had died tragically in their early twenties. They were my friends. We had actually all lived together right before I started seminary. And so, it seemed natural that when they died I was asked to organize a service.
My two friends were what we call “spiritual but not religious.” They were not Unitarian Universalists. Instead of a church we decided to hold the service in backyard of the apartment building where they had lived; where we had lived together. Several other of our friends lived in the building. My friends had been alienated from their birth families. The building was the place they most felt at home. It was decided that as part of the service we would scatter their ashes in the apartment’s back garden.
The service began. A late autumn Chicago night, we had candles against the cold. The stars struggled through the murk of city lights. The wind came, damp and icy off the lake. Hearts heavy, we sat in silence. I said some words, read a poem, then another, led a prayer. The stories started. They began somber enough--the attempts to reason through the unreasonable, the ache of loss--but slowly our spirits shifted. Someone shared about the couple’s dogs. They had owned two toy poodles. They loved to groom those dogs. It was almost as if they practiced topiary on them. The animals’ haircuts were often misshapen bouffants. Slightly smashed spheres, triangles, or even squares could be found at the end of their tails or on the tops of their heads. That was not their most endearing feature. It turns out that poodle fur takes vegetable based hair dye wonderfully. And so, on their evening walks the dogs would roam along the lakeshore--a cascading calliope of electric blue, neon green, shocking pink. Thinking about those dogs still makes me giggle.
Lightened by canine stories, grins on our faces but damp still in our eyes, we knew it was time to scatter the ashes. Chicago is not called the Windy City without reason. The person charged with the task either made a miscalculation or simply was not paying enough attention. She tossed a big handful of ashes into some flowers. They flew back on us, getting in our hair and clothes. A moment of shock and then the laughter began. And so, there we were, laughing and crying, not knowing exactly when one emotion started and the other stopped, covered in what someone euphemistically called “dead girl.” Baptism by ash. Have you had a similar experience? Where in the face of the truly awful something of the shear utter unbridled joy of life crashes through?
The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. James Baldwin made something of the same point in “The Fire Next Time.” It is probably Baldwin’s most widely read text. Written in the midst of the civil rights movement, it is a meditation on what it means to be black in America, the illusion of white innocence, this country’s deep structures of racial violence, and how we might find a modicum of hope. An enduring theme throughout the book is that despite of whatever horrors exist in the world, beauty endures. At the close, Baldwin recollects his childhood in a poor Harlem family, “When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty?”
One might mistake Baldwin’s query as an elegy for lost innocence. But he had rather something else in mind. The question is not about innocence but resilience. It is caught up in the reality that in a racially just world, the particular beauty of those moments would never have existed for Baldwin. As he struggled to make his way through the world, a black, gay, atheist writer, he saw beauty persisting. There are stories of beauty that can be discovered amongst some of the greatest human horrors.
The words of Holocaust survivor Gerta Weissman Klein reflect this. Writing of her time in Auschwitz, Klein recollects, “Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf.
Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.”
There is so much in those two sentences. Beauty, generosity, friendship, some scant hope, and, of course, the backdrop of almost unfathomable horror. To observe that beauty persists amongst horror is not to provide moral justification for the unspeakably awful. It is instead to suggest that we are ever haunted by hope.
Reflecting on Baldwin’s essay, Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker observes, “The greatest challenge in our lives is the challenge presented to us by the beauty of life, by what beauty asks of us, and by what we must do to keep faith with the beauty that has nourished our lives.” To meet this challenge is to survive in a world is all too often hostile to our humanity.
And so, we come to my second lesson, we are what we do. I do not mean this in any sort of trite vocational sense. I am not saying that your measure, or mine, can be counted as the sum of our professions or the amounts of our salaries. Instead, I am taking an ethical position, aligning myself with a particular ethical tradition, virtue ethics.
Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. And then, finally, there is the tradition of virtue ethics.
Virtue ethics has a long resonance within our Unitarian Universalist tradition. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... The great Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves by nurturing such virtues.
Virtue is like a muscle. It grows with exercise. The brave person is brave. The generous person is generous. The person who is filled with gratitude practices gratitude. We are what we do. These virtues come from the habits that we form. Those habits can be shaped by our religious practices. The main reason to join a Unitarian Universalist community, I have come to believe, is that it gives us the opportunity to cultivate virtues in a community that models those virtues. The community also holds us accountable to each other and provides us a space to reflect upon our actions and our habits when we fail to live up to our aspirations.
Think about your own involvement in the life of First Parish. Our community encourages us to practice virtues together. When we speak truth to power from the pulpit or stand vigil on the town common we are being honest and brave. When we share our joys and concerns we are providing a space for gratitude. When we make a financial pledge to the congregation we are practicing generosity. And when we fail to do these things we can hold each other accountable. Has your involvement in First Parish made you a braver, more gracious, or more generous person? Unitarian Universalism has nurtured these traits in me. After my decade as a minister, I know I am a braver, more gracious, and more generous person than I would be if I was not a Unitarian Universalist. This community and the broader community of Unitarian Universalism help me to be so by holding me accountable. What about you? We are what we do.
Finding beauty amidst horror is a virtue that can be nurtured by religious practice. Religious practice is something that we do together. It is the ritual life of our community and it is spiritual disciplines like meditation, prayer, yoga, or journal writing that we encourage each other to maintain. One of the most powerful religious practices in this community is music. Singing together, listening to Stephan or the Lizards in the Hayloft settles my spirit. It is a regular practice of letting a little beauty into life, even if only for a few minutes on a Sunday morning.
My heart is very heavy these days. It is undoubtedly a pathetic truism that the state of the world is bleak. So bleak that a litany of all of our planetary troubles is unnecessary. They sit almost constantly on many of our hearts and minds. And yet, the practice of beauty that I find in music helps to sustain me, helps remind me that there is hope, that life and the human community will find a way to continue. It is like the verse from our earlier hymn:
Through all tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing.
If sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
We are what we do. We practice beauty in the midst of the horrors and difficulties of life. When we do, we make the world a little more beautiful in its turn.
And so this is my prayer for each of us. No matter the murk and mire, the hard times and brutalities, the bleak winters of despair, the springs or autumns with seemingly little hope, may we cultivate a practice of beauty so that we may all ever ask, “How can I keep from singing?”
Amen and Blessed Be.