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The Enemy Within – 3/30/2014

Some years ago, cartoonist Ruben Bolling published a piece entitled, “God’s Reelection Campaign.” God, for the purpose of this story is imagined as a white-haired, white-robed, white-bearded white man – that image that pops up again and again in religious art and secular art about religion, even though I have never met anyone who attests to believe in it literally. In the comic strip, God’s 12-billion year term is about to expire and according to his pamphlet, he needs your support in order to earn a second one.

As in most good political dramas, things quickly begin to look bad for the incumbent. Constituents begin showing up to his public appearances to heckle him about unanswered prayers. He starts to lose his base. One average Joe interviewed by a reporter covering the campaign opines, “Famine, disease, misery, disasters – I say throw the Bum out.” Worst of all his opponent – a successful car dealer ready to bring his private sector experience to the management of the cosmos – is feels free to make all sorts of wild promises. Waffles will grow on trees. The earth will take an hour off from experiencing gravity each day. And all humans will now come standard with a third arm for holding beverages and the like.

But the lowest point comes during one of the televised debates. Asked to clarify his policy vis-à-vis good and evil, God exclaims that “Evil is necessary in order for good to exist.” His opponent seizes the opening, declaring that things will be very different in his administration. “Evil! Gone! First 100 days!”[i] It is the theological equivalent of, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

The matter of good and evil – and particularly of evil – has long been a central concern in religion. Scholars and theologians and lots of other human beings, faced with a world in which terrible things happen, have inquired into the nature of evil – its causes and effects, and how and why it came to be an element of our existence at all. There are a number of different answers, many of which you have no doubt heard before – these things tend to repeat themselves. In our own tradition, among my Unitarian Universalist minister colleagues, the sermon on evil even has an archetypical form. Were I following that oft-repeated form, this is the point where I would decry the fact that evil is a subject our faith is too shy about and too reticent to engage with – a word we avoid, and at our peril. But I am not going to do that, because I think that old saw has worn rather dull, if it ever cut anything to begin with.

The fact is, our tradition has crucial things to say about evil. Some of it is direct, and some of it is by implication. So that if you feel at all confused or conflicted about the subject, you might start with what is good – something we like to talk about often, and understand well – and consider what its opposite points to. The impulse in human beings to try to do good: to practice kindness and compassion, to struggle for justice, to fashion themselves and the world into finer things; that motive can be summarized in many ways. I prefer the term popularized by the Unitarian Albert Schweitzer: reverence for life. It is that reverence contained in us, nurtured and expressed in a multiplicity of ways, that draws us to do good in the world: actions that hallow and consecrate living things and the generous mystery of life itself. The opposite of this, contempt for life, is the definition I would offer you for the inclination to do evil: whatever actions desecrate life, and those that live.

This conflict between reverence and contempt is hardly a unique idea. In Jewish philosophy, the terms are yetzer hara and yetzer hatov – the evil and the good inclinations. You have likely seen before the old cartoon convention for a character in a moral dilemma: a tiny angel perched on one shoulder, a tiny devil seated on the other. There’s something comforting in that idea, that those impulses – particularly the harmful, destructive one – lie outside of us somehow, separate from our true self. It may be telling then that this feature of western art and children’s cartoon shows is probably a corruption of the Islamic concept of the kiraman katibin. This Muslim tradition holds that two angels – Raqib and Atid – perch on the shoulder of every person, watching what they do and recording their actions. Raqib is on the right, writing down the good, while Atid sits on the left, noting the evil. This version makes it plain: our feelings and our choices belong to us, are a part of us, are entirely us. I am not simply a neutral judge or the balance point of a scale – I am everything that I do and have done, for well or for ill.

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said, “and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”[ii] Evil is a part of who we are. It can be resisted, should be resisted, must be resisted if we and our world are to fulfill our promise, but that impulse is always with us. And it is perhaps for this reason that we are so fascinated by it. Myths and stories which meditate on and explore evil have long been popular, and they are particularly so just at the moment. The world of television has, in the last decade, become crowded with epics about characters slipping into – or gleefully living in – the realm of immorality. I want to touch on a few of these now in order to examine four of the most common arguments in favor of evil: the lines of reasoning that diminish our reverence and lead us towards acts of desecration.

The first is this: “It’s all in the game.” This is a quote from The Wire, a many-faceted window into the drug war in and around the city of Baltimore. The words are spoken by Omar Little, a stick-up artist who specializes in robbing drug merchants. As Omar testifies in court as a witness to a murder, he spars verbally with the defense attorney, a man who has made his name and fortune by aiding the drug kingpins of Baltimore in conducting their brutally violent business with as little interference from the law as possible. The attorney questions Omar and tells him, “You are amoral, are you not? You are feeding off [of] violence and despair…You are stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite…”

And this is where Omar cuts him off, “Just like you, man. I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though, right?” The idea that it’s all in the game is the idea that everyone else is up to something at least as bad as whatever you are doing. That some manner of injustice or wrong is simply the way things work, how life gets lived or business gets done. It is related to the concept for which the political theorist Hannah Arendt was known: the banality of evil. The condition under which things that are profoundly and obviously wrong become normal and commonplace. The necessary circumstances of any large-scale horror: the institution of slavery, the commission of genocide, or in this case a cycle of addiction, terrorization, and incarceration that corrodes and kills human beings, and rots away at communities. It is the argument for every evil, large and little, that we have become accustomed to, from any moment when we lie or cheat, expecting others to do the same, to the bloody and unseen cost of the gas in our cars and the food in our stomachs. Our tradition answers this attitude of disinterest with the imperative to examine our lives and our world carefully – to understand why things are the way they are, so we can attempt to change them. And it also reminds us that there is no particular sanctity in sameness. Doing what everyone else is doing is worthwhile if and only if the thing is right. Otherwise, it is our responsibility to be different.

In the more recent program, True Detective, two deeply flawed men grow progressively more and more broken as they work together to catch a serial killer. Partners Marty and Rust are a mismatched pair – one dangerously gifted at self-deception, the other possessed of an honesty that manifests as cruelty. One day, shaken by guilt from something he has just done, in a rare moment of clarity, Marty asks Rust, “Do you wonder, ever, if you’re a bad man?”

To which Rust responds, “No, I don’t wonder Marty. The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.”  This idea, that the world needs bad men, that some evils are necessary to prevent greater ones, is pernicious. On the one hand it is almost unavoidable: relatively few people believe in a total absence of physical self-defense, for instance. Harming a person to stop them from doing immediate harm to us or someone else is generally accepted. But this same line of reasoning connects directly to something that Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association said two years ago: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”[iii] This is the philosophy that has left our society so saturated with powerfully deadly weapons that anyone bent on the wholesale destruction of human life seems able to find at least one. If the existence or even potential of evil can be used to justify yet more evil, then that traps us in a cycle which can never end. The escape route our tradition prescribes is to confront injustice creatively with love, rather than meeting hate with hate.

The third common justification for the wrong we do as a species is grounded in the way we understand power. Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian political protagonist of the program House of Cards, is obsessed with power, and practiced at its exploitation. He is a ruthless, manipulative, hollow-hearted figure and a strong contender for the most despicable main character in the last decade of television. At one point in the series, as he tosses aside one of the few people who might qualify as a friend, he remarks, “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties.” This is too often accepted as a truism: that power, by its nature, leads to wrong, and so the choosing of leaders and the choices made by those leaders are at best a search for a lesser evil. That mentality teaches the oppressed that oppression is a natural state of affairs and allows the great and mighty the reassurance that injustice is a product of the system alone, and cannot be blamed on their individual choices.

By expecting villainy from the powerful, by allowing it to feel normal, we promote it. The public image of our political leaders in Washington is so abysmal, what fresh shame could they ever possibly find beyond simply holding office? Tolerating the contempt of millions of people seems to be a prerequisite for the job. The handful of ultra-powerful financial institutions on which our system of commerce depends are similarly expected to plumb new depths of depravity. In 2012, prosecutors claimed that one major bank had such a cozy relationship with the drug traffickers who relied on it to launder money, that the cartels began using different boxes to transport their cash – ones better sized to the teller windows at that particular bank’s branches.[iv] In the comic strip that I described earlier, the God character wins reelection despite a miserable campaign because he is omnipotent, and so his opponent is afflicted with boils. Unitarian Universalism’s answer here is to interrogate the idea of power measured by unlimited control. True power need not corrupt we argue, and when it does, it is often because it was the wrong sort of power to begin with. Power is meant to be built between people, rather than imposed upon them.

The final argument towards evil that our tradition has a clear response to is an idea William Shakespeare pointed to when he wrote for his fallen hero MacBeth the lines, “I am in blood. Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as going o’er.” It is the idea that once we get far enough down the wrong path, there is no way to change course. Walter White, the main character of the series Breaking Bad, exemplifies this. He sets out with an ambitious but limited plan to make and sell drugs in order to support his family after his impending death. Only days into it he finds himself needing the means to dispose of a body – things only grow more gruesome and terrible as he continues on down the same fractured road he initially chose. The phrase repeated in the series is, “No half measures.” Once a thing is begun, see it through, no matter the consequence.

The corrective to this that our faith offers is a vital version of that optimism for which we are sometimes derided by ourselves and others. Not ignorance or a willful misunderstanding of the facts, but to look into the reality of what is wrong with the world and still to have the courage to try to make it a better place. And in particular to refuse to call any moment “too late” to begin over again. This is the very essence of Universalism – that every person, in every moment, has the potential to do what is right, and so none of us can ever fully give up on each other, or ourselves.

In the face of a culture which perpetuates these messages excusing and justifying the evils built into its structures, and lurking in our own hearts, this is what our tradition teaches:

  1. In response to the attitude that “It’s all in the game,” we question the game itself, and seek to break – or change – whichever rules are destructive to life.
  2. In challenge to the claim that “The world needs bad men,” we struggle to meet hate with love, and ignorance with truth, no matter how uncertain and afraid that confrontation makes us.
  3. In contradiction of the idea that “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties,” we demand that power be mutual and relational, and arrived at by just means if it is ever to serve just ends.
  4. And in answer to the injunction, “No half measures,” we commit ourselves to choose anew, in each moment, the path that an unrelenting love and a tireless compassion would have us take.

These are the truths we come together into community to learn and to relearn with and from each other. These are the lessons which are up to us to carry out with us and to practice, so that the records of our lives shall be accounts more of good than of evil.

[i] Tom the Dancing Bug, 1995

[ii] The Gulag Archipelago, 1973



Of Hells and Handbaskets – 3/23/2014

Some of you have heard me speak before about the mythical town of Chelm – a city that exists in the folklore of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. In the village of Chelm, said to be situated somewhere in what is today Poland or Ukraine, everyone is a fool, and their stories impart wisdom by counter-example. Sort of like that comic strip from the children’s magazine Highlights – Goofus and Gallant – except, all Goofuses.

In one of these stories, Yankel, the town of Chelm’s Hebrew teacher, and his wife Reshka were trying to save money for a special occasion. Specifically, they were saving up for hamantaschen, special cookies for the holiday of Purim – which in reality was observed last Sunday, but in this story was still several months away. The two were very poor, but they decided that if they put aside just a bit of money each week, they would have enough. They found an old trunk with wheels on the bottom, and agreed that they would each put one coin into it every Friday.

And that is exactly what they did – for the first week. But when the second Friday came around, Yankel thought to himself, “I have just this one coin left in my pocket – why should I put it into the trunk? Let Reshka put in hers this week; that will be enough.” But Reshka, at the same time, was thinking much the same thing about Yankel, and so that week neither of them put anything into the trunk, each thinking that the other had made their contribution.

This went on for several months, until the day that Reshka and Yankel had agreed to open the trunk. Together they threw back the lid, expecting to find a pile of coins inside. Instead, there were just those first lonely two. Reshka looked a Yankel. Yankel looked at Reshka. Each knew the other had cheated, and their anger had to burn twice as bright to cover their shame. They began to argue, and then to shout, and then Reshka grabbed hold of Yankel’s beard, and Yankel took hold of Reshka’s wig. They pulled and struggled back and forth for a moment before toppling over together – right into the trunk.

The lid snapped shut with the two still wrestling inside. The trunk began to roll – it had wheels, remember – as their struggling jolted it across the room. Trapped together they slid out the door which was too simple and meager to have a threshold or any sort of step between the floor and the street. The trunk rolled out into the road and this is where it really began to pick up steam, because Yankel and Reshka lived near the top of a hill. Down, down it rolled, careening towards the center of town until the road flattened out and the trunk came to a stop – right in front of the synagogue. The street was crowded with people, who saw the trunk lurching back and forth with terrible noises coming from inside it, and knew at once that it must be haunted. When one brave soul finally ventured to open the lid, the townsfolk found Reshka and Yankel inside still quarreling with each other and arguing about the money they had not saved. Embarrassed by the incident and determined that nothing like it should ever happen again, the wise men of Chelm enacted three new laws: that no teacher of Hebrew should ever again be allowed to live on the same street as the synagogue; that all doors in the town henceforth should have thresholds; and that from that day, no trunk in Chelm should be permitted to have wheels.

Each year at our annual auction I offer one of my sermons for auction, with the winner getting to choose a topic, theme, text, or central question. Your next opportunity to bid on such an item is coming up in just a few weeks. This sermon is the one auctioned off in the spring of last year, and its winner was Ms. Carolyn Payne. When we sat down to discuss the sermon, Carolyn and I had a lovely conversation, rich and far-ranging, which left me with much to think about; but the particular topic of this service she left up to my own determination. Based on a moral puzzle that she had raised with me, I have arrived at this question: “What is it that we owe to one another?” What is our most basic obligation – not just to our families or our friends or to people we like, but to acquaintances and strangers, and to people we do not like?

The particular puzzle that prompts this question was outlined in our reading just a bit earlier. The first voice, in a song by Pete Seeger, invokes a quote attributed to the teacher Jesus in the Gospel According to John: “In my Father’s house are many rooms…”[i] Seeger’s song is about the desperate need for the space necessary to be ourselves – what Virginia Woolf literally called, “A Room of One’s Own.” This basic need for autonomy and non-interference – that we all might be free, to know and to grow – extends to individuals as well and to communities and nations, as tempting as it might be to meddle in the affairs of our neighbors.

The second voice, in Robert Frost’s famous poem undermines that idea, or a too-cute version of it, in the same way that the frost and cold topple the rocks of the broken wall. “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.” Our lives are formed out of our connections to each other. The more we cut the world up into fragments and parcels, the less human we become. Our very beings require relationship in order to cultivate and express what it is to be alive, and at the same time, we need separation enough to develop our own difference, rather than have who we are dictated by someone else. This seeming contradiction applies at every level: in our closest relationships, and in our most distant ones. In the space between siblings and cities, neighbors and nation states.

I should pause to say something here about the title of this sermon. Ms. Carolyn is, as many of you know, a person with a gift for conversation and storytelling and a knack for finding just the right turn of phrase to express a thought or feeling. And one of the many I have heard her use before is that old saw, that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. It names quite well, I think, that feeling you get when everything seems a terrible mess and you are at a loss – at least temporarily – as to what can be done about it. The tension between our common interest in each others’ lives and the space we need to make mistakes – a mistake being any choice a person makes that you do not like or agree with – that tension can certainly produce this hell-in-a-handbasket feeling. I know that it has for me.

The exact origin of the phrase ‘to hell in a handbasket’ is uncertain, but it is clearly an American saying with a likely connection to an earlier Britishism. ‘Going to heaven in a wheelbarrow,’ used to be a euphemism for going to hell – the implication being that getting into heaven required hard work and effort, while heading in the other direction was as easy as pie. The demons of the abyss would be all-too happy to carry you there themselves, hence the image in some religious art of devils toting poor souls around in handcarts and wheelbarrows.

Now, I find a lot to reject in this metaphor. First of course, the premise of a place of ever-lasting torment where the damned spend eternity suffering for their earthly crimes. This is a theological mistake, an intentional misreading of scripture, and a slander against God so severe that it ought to offend you whether or not you believe in any God at all. It is a dangerous, soul-destroying lie which has been used to terrorize people for millennia – but this is just Universalism 101; you’ve heard me say all this before. One of my mentors talked about a lesson she received as a young preacher serving in the environs of Washington, D.C. She delivered a sermon that powerfully criticized then-president Ronald Reagan, taking him to task for the theological consequences of his policies, and calling him to account as sharply as if he were seated in the first row of her congregation. Afterwards, however, a wise elder pointed out that Reagan had not been there that morning. Had never been there before, and likely never would be. Best then, to focus your message on the people you have in front of you.

So here is my deeper interrogation of hells and handbaskets: it is far from the case that everything that is easy is evil, and everything that is difficult is good. It is possible to be kind and compassionate without over-thinking it, and at times to rescue someone’s day or even someone’s life through no great effort. At the same time, trying to do what is right will lead us into hard choices at some time or another. And denying the idea of hell as a literal place of future punishment does not discard it as a metaphor for the hells we make of life on earth.

All of these things – the challenge of being good, the conflict between individuality and connectedness, the question of what we owe to each other, and the seductive impulse to give up and let things just keep getting worse when it feels as though they are already headed there anyway – all of these elements are on display in a little French film of several decades ago called Madam Rosa. Ms. Carolyn – who among her many other qualities and interests is something of a Francophile – was good enough to point me in the direction of this movie, based on a novel by Romain Gary. The story is formed from the poor neighborhood of Belleville, in Paris, in a run-down apartment building populated by people living on the margins of the mid-20th century: among them gay men, religious and ethnic minorities, and sex-workers both trans and cis-gender. In one sixth-floor apartment lives Madam Rosa, a survivor of internment at Auschwitz, formerly a courtesan herself, now in her later years she acts as a freelance foster-mother for the children of other women whose business is sex. She takes pains to raise the children in her care, each of a variety of nationalities and religions, with some sense of their respective cultures and creeds. Among her charges is a pubescent boy named Muhammad.

As Madam Rosa’s health deteriorates and most of her wards are retrieved by their mothers, it becomes impossible to hide the fact that she no longer receives letters or money from Muhammad’s family. He tries to rescue her and contribute to the shrinking household budget, and she tries to teach him every lesson she has omitted or put off before her time runs out. All the while their fragile lives depend on their neighbors: the rich variety of people they are thrown together with by poverty and circumstance: the gangster who hires Madam Rosa to write letters home to father in Nigeria about the education he isn’t actually pursuing, the North African scholar who tutors Muhammad as his mind begins to fail, the transwoman from the lower floor whose silent generosity sustains them. Having once been deported, imprisoned, and almost murdered for being a Jew, Madam Rosa remarks at one point that she afterwards acquired forged papers to prove that she and her ancestors were not Jewish and never had been – in case there should ever come another knock at her door. Madam Rosa and Muhammad are both people whom their society never meant or expected to survive. That survival has required building up layers of secrecy, deceit, and doubt: the wig and heavy makeup she wears to an upscale café, the clumsy air of worldliness and maturity he tries to effect on the street. As Madam Rosa begins to die, she and her last adoptive son begin to tear down that wall enough to see each other over it. Being known and understood by others can be incredibly dangerous. It can also be a strategy for survival.

It is said that the teacher Jesus said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”[ii] Here he was quoting directly from Leviticus[iii], a reminder that there is much more to be found in that book than homophobic clobber passages and arcane formulas for a disestablished temple. All of humankind has always been neighbor to itself – we have only ever had this one world to share. But now in our era, we are packed in more tightly and bound together more thoroughly than at any earlier time in history. Like the residents of a tenement in some rundown quarter of Paris, we have always the freedom to pretend we are not neighbors to each other, but our fortunes are bound together just the same. Love is the standard, but for people on the other side of the world, or for folks next door, but beyond the boundaries of family or friendship or religious community, there must be some basic beginning point. That point, that most essential thing which we all owe to each other, is the truth.

I might hate how my sister drinks too much, how my coworker conducts himself at the office, how a stranger on the street treats their dog. But short of resorting to the law or some other authority, their choices are their choices, and not mine. I have a duty to intervene for anyone, in the most terrible scenarios: a little more for the people I love, a little less for the people I do not know at all. But truth is the universal obligation – it is the constant across all relationships. If your question is, “What can I do?” with regards to anyone else’s problems or choices, the first response is, “Have you tried telling the truth yet?” – do they know how you feel, what you’re thinking? Mark Twain’s advice is right, I believe. He said, “When in doubt, tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.” This is not always the last step – it almost never is. But it is a beginning.

In the story we began with, Yankel and Reshka got no particular help or comfort from the slate of new laws that were passed in the wake of their very public embarrassment. But when their neighbors found out what they had been fighting about, they sent over a whole big basket of cookies. The truth was, they lived among people who cared about them. And sometimes the truth is best expressed in actions rather than words.



[i] John 14:2

[ii] Mark 12:31/Matthew 22:39/Luke: 10:27

[iii] Leviticus 19:18

In the Absence of Angels – 3/9/2014

On November 1st, 1872, Susan B. Anthony went with her sisters to a barber shop in Rochester, NY to register to vote. Four days later on November 5th – Election Day – she cast her ballot. Thirteen days after that on the 18th, she was visited at her home by a deputy US marshal. He was invited to sit down in the parlor. He commented on the weather and made a few other attempts at conversation with Ms. Anthony. Finally, when asked directly, the marshal explained that he had come to arrest her for the crime of voting. She asked if he normally arrested men in this way. He said that he did not, and so Susan demanded to be treated in the same manner as any man being placed under arrest would have been. She held out her wrists for the hand-cuffs. When the marshal suggested they take separate carriages – it was generally considered improper for a young man to be alone with an unmarried woman – she refused.

It had been her goal to get arrested, or at least to make it to court somehow. Just registering to vote was an accomplishment; the election inspectors initially rebuffed her. But after more than an hour of determined arguments, and a detailed and convincing threat to take the men to court personally for refusing her and her sisters what she regarded as their rights as citizens, they were allowed to add their names to the voter rolls. Those inspectors may also have just been intimidated by Ms. Anthony’s presence – she was twenty or thirty years older than they were, and renowned as a woman who did not back down from a fight.

Susan never managed to force her case all the way to the Supreme Court, as she had hoped. She was robbed of the opportunity when her own lawyer paid the bail she had refused to pay herself. When she asked him why he’d done it, he said, “I could not see a lady I respected put in jail.” But the case got attention for her cause nonetheless, and in 1920 the 19th amendment to the constitution – sometimes called the Anthony amendment – made it legal for other women to do what she had been arrested for.[i]

Susan B. Anthony was notoriously determined and stern-willed. I have heard it said that at social occasions she had a habit of approaching a group of people, bursting into the conversation and announcing, “Votes for women!” before turning away and moving on to the next group. It was a monomaniacal focus on her cause, which must have made her something of an oddball – that person at a party that no one wants to talk to. She never married, she had relatively few close friends, and even the ones she had were fellow activists, with whom she sometimes quarreled on questions of tactics and priorities. Looking at her life from the distance of 150 years, it is easy to ask the question, “How could she give so much? How could she keep struggling towards a goal she had to know she probably wouldn’t – and in fact did not – live to see accomplished?” The question that comes easier to me is, “How could she not? Susan lived in a world in which she and everyone else like her was denied an essential right that I have never once in my life, since turning 18, had to worry about being refused. How could she not fight to claim it with every ounce of her being?”

Both a Quaker and a Unitarian, Susan B. Anthony is one of our theological ancestors. I would like to think that she would be celebrated by her co-religionists no matter what faith she had practiced, but she is particularly cherished by us because the equal voice of all people in the decisions that affect them is so essential to our values as Unitarian Universalists. Alone among the religions of the earth, our faith holds up democracy as one of our guiding ideals. For this reason, our ancestors in centuries past and our congregations in the present have championed the right of self-determination, the right of conscience, and the right of the ballot box in this country and all over the world.

Yet this value of ours is, I think, a thing which is easy to misunderstand. The fifth principle we share as a religious movement endorses, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” And here, already, as far as I am concerned, is a mistake. There is not one democratic process which can serve as a litmus test for democracy. Coming from the Greek for “rule of the people,” democracy is not a single way of ordering a nation or an organization; it is a goal, an ideal, a principle which can be applied to many different ways of organizing human beings. To be more accurate, I think that our fifth principle ought to call for the right of conscience and the use of democratic processes. We can change its wording in that way, as I hope one day we will, because our principles, purposes and sources – the core document that marks out the theological center we share – was made and can be remade through the democratic activity of our congregations. In fact, only a few years ago a major set of changes were proposed and failed by a very narrow margin of votes. That proposal included changing the fifth principle in just the way I think we should – and I voted against it, because it also included some drastic changes I thought were more important to prevent. Democracy makes for some messy choices.

But the larger and all-too common mistake is to think that only governments that look like the one described by a US high school civics class, or an episode of School House Rock – that these and only these may be described as democracies. That whether or not people are permitted to vote on who rules them every 2-6 years is the only horizon between tyranny and freedom. That is a standard that is dangerously low. There’s a story from the Sioux nation – a people with good reason to have little faith in the elections held by the government that stole their land.

Once, it is said, all the dogs held an election to choose who would be president of all dogs. Each one argued for themselves: I should be president, I am the strongest, the fastest, I have the most beautiful coat, the best sense of hearing, the loudest howl. Finally, one dog jumped up and said, “I nominate for president whichever dog smells the best!” So all the dogs started to sniff one another, but they couldn’t agree, and even today they are searching for the dog who smells best. And this is the story of why dogs sniff each others’ butts.

That’s a commentary on the craziness that the United States gets up to every four years, but not a criticism of democracy itself. The principle of democracy has deep roots in North America, where collective decision-making and public consultation was practiced long before the arrival of people from Europe. The Haudenosaunee – whom the French called the Iroquouis – are the indigenous people of most of the state of New York. Their lands include the current site of the city of Rochester, where both I and Susan B. Anthony come from. The government of the Haudenosaunee depended on a broad consensus across many tribes and clans. Women had a significant role in this process, including final authority on which men would serve as chiefs, and when to go to war. There is some evidence that the Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace helped to influence the US constitution – but clearly the active inclusion of women in decision-making did not make its way in for the first 130 years.[ii]

Our religious commitment to democracy grows out of our understanding that revelation is ongoing, and not limited to any time, place, or person. Every human life contains wisdom and insight to contribute to the greater whole. We come together into community to share what we know as individuals and to discern the larger truth, together. There is a Jewish story that illustrates this point – some of you have heard me tell it before. It is 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 of the law are just as he says!” But Rabbi Joshua responded, “The law is not in Heaven.” The responsibility of that legal ruling fell

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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.[iii]

It is a popular thing to complain about attempts at democracy – it always has been. Listening to and considering many different possibilities and points of view takes time and energy. There are always those who will abuse the process, try to push the group off-track, who will try to sway the people out of self-interest rather than a sense of greater good, or who just want to talk when they have nothing of importance to say. The speed and decisiveness of autocracy – of any system where orders simply come from the top and are followed by everyone else – is seductive. We can fantasize about cutting through inconvenient rules and doing away with distasteful compromise. Everything will be just as we want it to be. This isn’t just the philosophy that supports dictatorships – it can crop up in any organization or community whenever the people grow weary of the hard work of making their choices together. This has become largely the rule in big corporations now, where shareholders and boards of directors generally abdicate their responsibilities to powerful CEOs, and labor unions are absent or weakened beyond influence. And the trend exists even within some of our congregations: some wish to choose a minister to run the show, and hand them nearly all of the power and responsibility once reserved for the board of trustees and the congregation as a whole.

This is not one of those congregations, and I am not one of those ministers. And as popular as it has been since the invasion of the Ukrainian Crimea to say that the leader of the Russian Federation appears strong and decisive, while the leader of the United States appears weak and indecisive – their respective actions reflect the differences in the governments they lead, and I would not trade one for the other. Autocrats are only popular with those who fool themselves into thinking that their wishes and hopes will be honored by the powerful without all the trouble of a free press, an informed citizenry, a strong guarantee of universal rights, or a process of open elections. Sooner or later, that illusion must crumble: for dictators are not so good at following the will of the people – they find it far easier to coerce their consent.

Roughly 240 years ago, in the Federalist Papers which argued for the adoption of the US constitution, James Madison wrote, “what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”[iv] In the absence of angels, what we have is each other and whatever loyalty we share to a goal which is higher than our own self-interest; whatever trust we can muster that we will, by choosing together, choose more wisely than we could have on our own.

The movement toward democracy is a constant struggle – it is not inevitable, and its momentum is only built by the hard work of people seeking for their rights and the rights of others. In 1872 it was Susan B. Anthony talking her way into a vote, getting arrested, and putting America on trial for it. One hundred years later, with technical political equality for women, the full freedom of perfect democracy was still long off – just as it is still long off today. Within our own movement in the 1970s, women and men were equal in theory but entirely unequal in practice. The campaign to raise the voice of women in Unitarian Universalism – which has taken us from a religion with only a handful of female religious leaders, to one where the majority of our ministers are women – began at the grass roots, in our congregations. At one of these, for a service calling for a more democratic Unitarian Universalism, Carolyn McDade – the musician who wrote our most beloved hymn, Spirit of Life, wrote different song. It began with this verse:

Well we might come in a-fighting, cause there’s lots that needs a righting;

We’ve learned a lot from living never taught to us in schools;

If they say come in like a man, well, they must not understand,

When we enter in the game we’re gonna change the god-damned rules.[v]

Movement towards democracy doesn’t mean that a few more people get to vote, but everything else stays the same. By the standards established in the constitution lobbied for in the Federalist Papers, I and nearly everyone else in this room would have been ineligible to vote. Each expansion of that franchise: beyond only those who owned land, beyond only white people, beyond only men, beyond only those over 21 – has also meant major changes to our society. We are constantly changing the rules – but not always in the direction of democracy. The powerful like to remain powerful, and can be quite imaginative in finding ways to deny people their voice, even when they are legally entitled to it. That’s why some of the most recent public positions taken our association – by delegates from our congregations debating and voting together – include stands against voter ID laws and other tactics designed to rob poor people and people of color of their vote, and calling for an amendment to the constitution in order to end corporate personhood and get corporate money out of the political system.

There are many critical matters at issue in our society: healthcare reform, the war on drugs, tax policy; the list goes on. We don’t usually think of democracy as being one of these issues – it’s supposed to be something that we all have agreed upon. But the laws and practices that make a nation more democratic or less so – these require the same sorts of advocacy and campaigning to accomplish and protect as for any other issue. In the absence of angels, what we have is each other, and the work we are willing to do to make sure that each of us has a voice – whether we like what the other person says with it or not.


[i] The Trial of Susan B. Anthony for Illegal Voting, Doug Linder (2001),


[iii] From the Mishnah, Bava Metzia 59b

[iv] The Federalist No. 51

[v] Carolyn McDade, “We Might Come In a-Fighting,” Arlington Street Women’s Caucus Songbook, Boston, 1975.

There’s Always Money in the Banana Stand – 3/2/2014

A parable is a fancy sort of word for a story. It means any sort of story that we remember and retell to each other because it says something important that we do not want to forget, something about the world we share and about living in it. There are a lot of parables in the bible – the Hebrew scriptures and the Greek testaments – but the one I want to share with you this morning comes from another source.

This is a story about a father and a son. Over a lifetime, the father built up a business, but he did not do it alone. The whole family worked at, some harder than others, it must be said.  And one day there came a time when that business was in trouble and the father could no longer lead it. And so responsibility fell to one of his sons, the most diligent and hardest-working of his children, to take up the reins. Now the son wanted to do right by his family, and keep the business from collapsing, and he also wanted to prove to his father that he could be as good of a leader as him – or a better one.

The family business, the company, had many offices, many employees, many different ways of making money. It had grown large over the years, but now it was sick – the company was in trouble and in danger of going out of business. But when the son went to his father, to ask him about the things he needed to know, in order to take over and try to fix what was wrong, his father would only give him one piece of advice “There’s always money in the banana stand.” This major multi-national corporation had grown from humble origins, and from their earliest days, the family had owned a little hut on the beach that sold chocolate-covered frozen bananas.

The son found no value in his father’s advice; he focused on what the company had become, not what it used to be. His concerns were about real estate, high finance and complicated book-keeping – not selling bananas. He kept coming back to his father hoping he would give him the information he needed to lead the company. All he would say was, “There’s always money in the banana stand.” And this made the son think of the hot summers he had spent working inside that banana stand, and how even at that simple job his father would never trust him to do it right. So, angry and frustrated, the son destroyed the banana stand – he burned it down. He went to his father and told him it was gone. This was one decision, finally, that his father could not overrule or try to undo.

The father had made a lot of money over the years, and not all of it was in banks. So he grew very upset at this news, thinking of how much had been lost. And he cried out, “There was $250,000 lining the walls of the banana stand!”

This story does not come from any holy book or any newspaper. It comes from a cancelled television show called Arrested Development.[i] And why on earth would I tell you such a tale this morning? Because it is our faith that what is true is true, and what is not is not, no matter the source of either. And this allows us – in fact it requires us – to find reason to laugh in some things that others find only serious, and to consider carefully some things that others will only dismiss. So here are three true things that I find in the parable of the banana stand:

First, when we refuse, at every turn, to trust our children and their choices, we raise them to ignore our counsel. Just as when we refuse to listen to our parents, we often make choices we regret.

Second, starting a fire is dangerous, and a terrible strategy for resolving disputes in business and family life.

And third, sometimes in our efforts to win we lose track of the center of our being. The great Unitarian storyteller Charles Dickens, in his famous novella, “A Christmas Carol” describes a young Ebenezer Scrooge as a kindhearted person with high ideals, who slowly strips away his best impulses in order to gain wealth and power. In one of Aesop’s fables, a frog grew jealous of an ox, the ox being so much larger than the frog. The frog puffed itself up bigger and bigger until it was as large the ox, and then it popped. The teacher Jesus is said to have asked his students, “What shall it profit any of us, to gain the whole world, but lose our soul?” In racing to succeed, to be the best, to show everyone who has ever doubted us how wrong they are, we lose ourselves.

Each of us has a banana stand – a place where we store up our hopes and our ideals – the heart of who we are. In fact I would wager that most of us have more than one of these things, as though our souls had several different homes, like a certain infamous wizard from the Harry Potter books. In these places – in families or partnerships, in a special connection to a town or city or some fragment of the natural world – we store up what keeps us going. So as we grow and change, as all living things do, we must take keep track of where we have hidden our spiritual wealth, in order to protect those places.

We come together this morning because this is one such place for us. A storehouse of the spirit, where our hopes and ideals reside. The walls are not lined with hidden currency – we know this because we opened them up a few years ago for the renovation. We found some interesting things – like places where old windows once were more than a century ago – but no cash, as far as I know. Rather this church, which is a covenant between us more than a set of planks and plaster, contains the solace that we need in time of trouble, the impatience we need in confronting injustice, and the collective wisdom required to seek out and uncover new truth.

This is the day when we consecrate our commitment to sustain this community in the year ahead. To offer our pledge of support, and to share from the means we have into the means we share. There’s always money in the banana stand, and there’s always spirit in our church. Today we renew our covenant to make sure that this spirit, and this church, will continue to abide.

[i] Season 1, Episode 2, “Top Banana”

Signs and Symbol


A few weeks ago, the Unitarian Universalist Association unveiled a new logo. It’s the image above this paragraph. I’ll give you a moment to take a look at it and think about how it strikes you. It’s a flaming chalice of course, but I’ve heard any number of other things that it supposedly looks like. A torch. A tulip. A person with their arms outstretched. And a  few other things that I won’t repeat in print.

Because the first way that news like this gets announced these days is via the internet, and because one of the internet’s greatest powers is to foment and encourage over-reaction, I’ve seen a lot of energized debate about the new logo. It has its supporters and its detractors. (You can read more about it here as you develop your own opinion.) The most grave concern that I’ve seen people raise about it – and one I want to allay right off – is that a change in our association’s logo means a change in our religion’s symbol. It does not. Such a change is actually entirely beyond the reach of the UUA. At least in terms of the headquarters staff and/or the UUA board – which is what we usually mean when we say “the UUA did X.” The UUA is actually the term for all of our congregations and the people who make them up, so it includes you, and me, and pretty much everyone who’s invested in this conversation.

The flaming chalice has been the primary symbol of our religious movement for a while now (it began to gain momentum in the 1970s-1980s), but it wasn’t what we had in mind when our association formed in 1961. The symbol we chose then was a set of two interlocking rings, representing the coming together of Unitarianism and Universalism. (The flaming chalice depicted inside those rings is one popular rendition of the symbol – this was the logo of the UUA two logos ago.) The flaming chalice came to be our dominant symbol because people and congregations started using it as such. The chalice originates with a symbol employed by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, originally created for the old Unitarian Service Committee during World War II, as something official-looking to stamp on travel documents for people the USC was helping to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe. (It was created by an atheist artist with no religious affiliation, at the behest of a Christian Unitarian minister – you can read more about it here.)

Each of the flaming chalice logos that have been used by the UUSC and the UUA and various congregations and UU groups are different from each other. Some look like goblets, others like wide bowls. Some have long stems, and some none at all. Some have small flames, and some have big, Technicolor ones. And yet, none that I have ever seen (not even the “1667 Chalice” logo we use at First Parish) look anything like the chalice we actually use in worship here – the unique creation of long-time member Mac Coleman. (Quite coincidentally, this new one from the UUA might actually come the closest.) The diversity within this symbol is wide and vast, and that fits who we are as a people. Our varied communities have the power and the responsibility to forge their own unique expressions of Unitarian Universalism, based on the particular missions they serve and the particular people who serve them. So too with our chalices. Whoever uses this new chalice – or doesn’t – it is just one more addition to the galaxy of signs that make up the shared symbol we have chosen together.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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