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God Can’t Vote – 11/4/2012

There is a story from the Jewish tradition set a little less than 2000 years ago. The Sanhedrin, the council of legal authorities, were debating a small point of law and one of them, Rabbi Eliezer, found himself at odds with the others. Outvoted by his fellow sages, Eliezer declared, “If it is as I say, let this carob tree prove it.” The tree immediately uprooted itself, flying through the air and out of the garden where it had been planted. But the other teachers were not impressed; “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” they replied.

Rabbi Eliezer continued, “If it is as I say, let this stream of water prove it,” and the stream began to flow backwards. His fellow rabbis remained adamant: no proof could be brought from a stream, either.

“If it is as I say, let the walls of this meetinghouse prove it,” he declared, and the building around them began to quake. Another sage leapt up to rebuke the walls, saying, “When scholars engage in legal dispute, what is your relevance?” The trembling stopped, but the argument continued.

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer proclaimed, “If it is as I say, let it be proved from Heaven.” And there came a great voice from on high crying out, “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer? All matters the law are just as he says!” But Rabbi Joshua responded, “The law is not in Heaven.” The responsibility of that legal ruling fell to the judges in that room, and to no one and nothing else. Not even the voice of the Holy One had standing to contradict the determination of the court.[i]

As Unitarian Universalists, our faith is grounded in the value of freedom of conscience and the quest for democracy. The people who are most effected by a decision, should be the ones who make that decision, together. Something like Rabbi Joshua and the other sages who ruled against Rabbi Eliezer, we do not privilege one voice or viewpoint over the many on the basis of spiritual authority, tradition, or miraculous circumstance. We are not waiting for all of our important decisions to be made for us by someone or something else. The responsibility for making the choices that shape our lives falls on each of us as individuals, and on all of us together as one community.

Our faith takes the power and the duty of the ballot seriously, which is why, for those of us who have the privilege of United States citizenship and who are registered to vote, this coming Tuesday is an important day. It is my responsibility as your minister to offer moral and spiritual council on the subjects and concerns that matter in your lives and in the larger community this congregation serves. So it is necessary that I say something to you about this Tuesday’s election.

It would jeopardize the tax exempt status that this congregation enjoys as a religious institution for me to instruct you on which party or candidate you should favor. I will not be doing that, but for the more important reason that it would run against the values of our shared tradition. From this place, I stand and offer what insight I have, according to my own limited experience, my study of our living tradition, and the stirrings of the infinite but inscrutable spirit. From your place, you receive that message and consider it, or do not, as you wend towards the truth of your own understanding. This is the covenant between preacher and congregation; I invoke no authority for my words higher than the trust you have placed in me. So rather than dwelling on the specifics of your choice for President, I want to turn instead to the five questions that appear on the ballot here in Beverly, to the values that inform those questions, and what our tradition has to say about those values.

It seems fitting that by opening with Question 1, the so called “Right to Repair” issue effecting car-owners and related businesses, we begin with just a complete mess. After this question was set on the ballot, the state legislature reached their own agreement with the folks who proposed it in the first place, so now the main people calling for a “yes” on this issue are new groups hoping to disrupt the deal that has already been made between the two original factions. As confusing and crazy-making as that sounds, it is a reminder to me of something profoundly important. Democracy is not any one system or practice: it is an ideal which we can never perfectly attain, but which we can always move towards. Any system that attempts to empower people to rule on the matters that shape their lives is always imperfect, and always sacred.

A friend of mine who is a Unitarian Universalist once told me about her experience as a poll worker in a very close and hotly contested election. Whenever you have enough people filling out paperwork, there will be some mistakes. It was her job to take ballots that had been rejected by the automatic reading machine, and examine them to see if she could determine who the vote had been intended for. If she could, then that person’s votes could be counted for their candidate, instead of being discarded as illegible. She could see on most of the ballots that folks had marked the candidate she opposed – a person she thought would be terrible, even dangerous in that position. In her head, she raged at the people who had made that selection, “What could they be thinking? How could they possibly have voted for that guy?” But all of that frustration did nothing to stop her from doing her job: to make sure that their votes were counted, as much as she disagreed with them. The methods by which we make our decisions together can always be made more fair, more open, more inclusive – and they should be made so. But, even in an imperfect system, such as one that sometimes sends a question to its electorate that it wishes it could take back, there is a holiness in following and abiding by the rules that we have agreed to, even when it means we don’t get our way.

Question 2 is the ballot measure that religious leaders throughout our commonwealth seem to have the most to say about. The asks whether or not physicians should be able to assist terminally ill patients in ending their lives. The primary religious argument against it is rooted in the sanctity and protection of all human life; a near universal religious value, and one that is essential to who we are as Unitarian Universalists. There is also opposition to this measure from disability advocacy groups. John Kelly, of the organization Second Thoughts, said that the reason given for enacting this and a similar law already in place in Oregon is, “mainly about the social and emotional issues of becoming disabled, like depending on others and feeling like a burden.”[ii] As Unitarian Universalists, life is infinitely precious to us, and not just able-bodied life, not just privileged life, not just life when it is easiest to live, but also when it is hard. Suffering is not itself a good thing, but even in suffering, there is the possibility for good to occur. “To hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” as Martin Luther King put it.[iii]

Yet, it is because I am a Unitarian Universalist that I support the right put forward in Question 2: of the terminally ill to choose to end their lives and to seek the assistance of their doctors in doing so. I support it just as I support many rights that I do not expect or desire to use myself, even those that I would counsel others against employing. In the book of Deuteronomy, these words are attributed to the prophet Moses: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life…”[iv] And in the Gospel According to John, the teacher Jesus is said to have said, “I am come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”[v] Life is something more than a heartbeat. Unitarian Universalism affirms, in the words of Mary Ann Moore and my childhood minister Helena Chapin, that each person must be free to search for what is true and right in life.[vi] Freedom gives life meaning; there can be no purpose to living without the ability to say ‘yes’ or to say ‘no’.

From my time spent as a hospital chaplain, I can attest first hand that modern medicine is capable of remarkable things. I can also report that it is possible to extend life far beyond any reasonable sense of its natural boundary, prolonging it into something approaching living death. This is, and indeed has to be, the default setting for medical care in a compassionate society: do everything you can to keep a person alive, until and unless they ask that you stop. The ability to decline treatment, even if it means that death will come more quickly, is widely accepted in most religious traditions and universally protected under the law. Because our bodies are the things in this world that are most intimately our own, where our authority must be final and sacrosanct. I see the matter addressed in Question 2 as an extension of this right.

The right to choose what we do with our bodies also informs the subject of Question 3, which would make it possible to obtain and to use marijuana medicinally here in Massachusetts if passed. Now, contrary to what people tend to assume about me on the basis of my hair length, I have no particular fondness for marijuana. And I would counsel anyone to be careful with any substance, legal or illegal, popular or unpopular, whose purpose is to make you think, feel, or act differently than you otherwise would.

But my anger at the consequences of our national war on drugs far outweighs my distaste for chemical escapism. Roughly 20% of inmates in state prisons nationally are there because of drug-related offenses, and drug offenders make up about half of the federal prison population. Mandatory-minimum sentences, particularly at the federal level, result in lengthy prison terms for nonviolent offenses. The market for illegal substances is massive, and decades of brutal “tough on crime” tactics haven’t eliminated it, but have divided families and gutted neighborhoods by keeping violence and narcotics tied together and disproportionately targeting people and communities of color. Ten years ago, our association of congregation took a public stand calling for an end to the drug war as a matter of conscience.[vii] This was right in line with our long history as a voice for prison and criminal justice reform, a natural consequence of our faith’s original belief in the fundamental mercy of God. To the extent that the issue of Question 3 would do anything to push back against the harmful failure of our national drug policy, my reading of our tradition inclines me towards it.

Here in Beverly there are two more questions beyond the three listed on the state-wide ballot. Question 5 addresses the matter of whether corporations are people. Spiritually speaking, the answer is simple: they are not. We Unitarian Universalists affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, meaning every human being. Other things can have value, but no object or institution can have as much value as every person does. The limit for corporate rights ought to be set by the public – that is, by actual people – according to their determination of the public good, and the need to protect the rights of other actual human beings. This would include the right to speak, to vote, and to think, without being shouted down by a barrage of television attack-ads, robo-calls and dishonest political mailers.

I’ve left Question 4 for last because this relatively minor, thoroughly local question touches on one of the central themes of this year’s election. How much do we each deserve, and just where should we get it from? Question 4 would slightly increase local property taxes to support affordable housing and public spaces, and would also allow us to benefit from state funds going towards the same purpose. Because our heretical ancestors were so unpopular and despised in most of the places they lived, there is much in our history that would cause us to favor a smaller and more limited government. But our tradition is even more clear that all people are intrinsically valuable and deserve to have their basic needs met. All people are entitled to health care, to food, to housing. Reasonable people may disagree over the limits of government and the roles we should or should not ascribe to it. You may not believe that raising money through taxation and spending it on essential services is the proper role of government. But that does not change the fact that we are all still morally on the hook, individually and collectively, for how we will meet the needs of all the people in our town, state, and nation. Government is the most powerful single tool we have for working together as a whole society; anyone who does not want us to use it to fulfill our obligation to feed the hungry, nurture the sick, welcome the stranger and otherwise comfort the afflicted, had better have an alternative prepared, and be ready to devote themselves to it.

I would say once again that none of what I have said is intended as an instruction in how you should vote in two days. Rather, I hope that it will make some contribution to your own process of decision making. Perhaps it may also provide some grist for your discussions with other folks about the matters on the ballot on Tuesday, and the larger questions that will still face our society on November 7th, whatever the outcome on the 6th. In so far as I am handing our direct assignments and specific instructions, they would be to vote if you are able, and to remain or become engaged once the election is over. God can’t vote. The world does not get better all on its own. To improve our lives and the lives of other people, we have to struggle, to work, to make hard decisions, to have tough conversations and to refuse to surrender to the seductive power of apathy or distraction. Our society needs us – all of us – to bring our ideas and our ideals into the public square of debate and decision. For if we do not carry our values and our faith into the polls with us, then they will remain absent from world we inhabit.

[i] From the Mishnah, Bava Metzia 59b

[iii] MLK, “I Have a Dream” (1963)

[iv] From Deuteronomy 30:19

[v] From John 10:10

[vi] From their book, Beginning Unitarian Universalism


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