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The Sacrament of Democracy – 11/6/2016

I am obliged to begin my message this morning by saying something very clearly, up front: I neither have, nor do I desire to have, the spiritual authority to tell you how to use your vote. No matter what you do, or do not do, have done or have not done, on or before this Tuesday, I have no special power to offer you any reward or punishment, whether theological or ecclesiastical. I can neither threaten hell nor promise heaven as an inducement – my Universalism takes both the carrot and the stick off of the table. And while there are a great many things that I would say you or I could do wrong, come Tuesday, none of them will change your status here. Neither I, nor this congregation, make any endorsement of any party or candidate. What exactly you will do with your one wild and precious vote remains, quite thoroughly, up to you.

If I say that this has been a particularly sour and anxiety-filled Presidential campaign process, full of much wailing, and gnashing of teeth, I rather doubt that many will rise to its defense. I have found in the last few months that only three possible outcomes remain, when the subject of the election comes up in conversation between two or more people: fight, flight, and mutual obsession. The fight option should be fairly self-explanatory: a tense and quite possibly heated exchange between strangers, co-workers, or family members, arguing about the merits of one’s chosen candidate – or more likely, the flaws of another. Flight is also pretty straight forward: it is the impulse to avoid the subject at all costs, by avoiding the subject, changing it when encountered, actively leaving the room when it is brought up or literally pleading that the group turn its attention to something, anything else. To be clear, I’ve seen all four of those possibilities play out. The third option, after fight and flight, however – mutual obsession – might require a little more explanation. This is when two or more people manifest the free-floating angst in this election by exchanging numerous scraps and tidbits about it – fragments of polling data, semi-obscure stories from the political press, comparisons to little-known episodes from American history, and theories about exactly how things might unfold, come Election Day. As one who has chosen this third option again and again, this election season, I have to own up to what it actually is: a way of appearing to be bravely engaged in confronting this frightening spectacle consuming our nation, while really it’s just yet another spin on flight; obsessing over minutia as an intellectual dodge.

My calling as your pastor, to care for the wellness of each of your souls and to lend what aid I can in trying times, exhorts me to offer some comfort, here. To remind you that no matter what world we wake up to on Wednesday morning, the earth will continue to spin, the sun will continue to rise in the east and set in the west, and life will continue on. All of which is true. But I am also compelled by my role and by the covenant we share to fumble towards prophecy: to speak to you plainly and honestly about what matters most. So I will say this: elections have consequences. Their outcomes matter, and in fact our shared faith demands that we take them, and our role in them, seriously. To some of you who would wish that this was all over, or would all go away, that may sound more like the hard truth than the comforting reassurance. But I say it today, because I believe it to be both. Here’s why:

There is an old Jewish fable, about a boat which set out to sea on a long journey. It carried both people and cargo, and the captain of the ship assigned those people – of whom were quite poor – each a little plot in the hold, just as though they were goods to be sold. The voyage was long, and by the middle of it the passengers had run out of food, even after sharing and carefully portioning what little they had. So, with their bellies hungry, the people appointed the Rabbi who was among them to go to the captain and ask for his mercy. The Rabbi explained to the captain that the passengers in the hold were going hungry. Yet, the ship’s cargo contained a great deal of food meant for sale when they arrived at their destination. Couldn’t the captain open just one of his crates, and distribute enough food to make sure no one went hungry?

The captain refused. The food was his, and he planned to do with it as he chose; whatever that was, it was no business or concern of the Rabbi. The Rabbi was sad to hear this, but not surprised. He convinced the captain, however, to come with him into the hold, to little square of floor that had been assigned to the Rabbi as his portion. When they arrived, the Rabbi produced a hand drill, and began to drill into the floor. The captain yelled at him to stop – even a small hole would let the whole ocean into the boat. The ship would be lost, and everyone and everything aboard it as well. The Rabbi kept on doing exactly what he had been doing, drilling closer to the water underneath and around the boat with each turn of the crank. “This is my part of the hold,” the Rabbi explained. “I paid for it, and you assigned it to me yourself. It is mine, and I plan to do with it as I choose. Whatever that is, it is no business of concern of yours.” Ashamed at the mirror the Rabbi’s actions held up to his own selfishness, the captain relented, and opened one of his crates to feed the hungry passengers.

It is our faith that all of our lives are connected to each other. That our world is not defined by 7.4 billion private interests, but ultimately by a single, common good. The rights, and the worth and dignity of the individual, we affirm and defend. But it is not because each of us is a precious jewel, beautiful but alone. Rather, we are each threads in the same garment: when one of us is diminished, the whole of us suffer the loss. These two deep understandings about ourselves and our world – the unique value of the one, and the shared value of the all – constitute the first and the last of the seven principles which our Unitarian Universalist congregations covenant to affirm and promote. It is from these two, that all others proceed, and one of them, the fifth principle, names our explicit commitment to democracy as a religious imperative.

Even when it is being supported, democracy is often presented as a compromise of sorts. Of course, goes the argument, we each would prefer to have a dictatorship which followed our own preferences perfectly, but because none of us would wish to live in anyone else’s dictatorship, deciding matters together, or electing representatives who will do so for us, is the next best option. “Democracy,” as the British statesman Winston Churchill once put it, “is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” But what I tell you is this, and I pray that you remember it on Tuesday: I could not, and you should not, ever be content to live in a dictatorship. No matter how convincing the rhetoric of the man – and friends, I’m sorry, but it’s always a man – ginning up the crowd is. No matter how grand his promises or seductive his prejudices – even if he professes to hate exactly whom you hate, and love exactly whom you love, and vows to return the earth to your favorite, imaginary era of lost perfection, neither joy not security will follow for you, once he makes his ascent. When you give your own power over to a would-be-emperor, who so neatly and absolutely divides the world between the righteous and the vile, between the sheep and the goats, you will never be safe on the side of the angels. Everyone, but the one who is king, is simply waiting in line for their turn to be persecuted. Your only hope to avoid becoming a victim of the regime that you championed is that your life might be shorter than the length of the line ahead of you.

We are not religiously committed to democracy because there is some spiritual magic in the act of voting; there are other ways of making decisions that can be equally democratic, or more so. We do not commit ourselves, as a movement, to this principle, because there is some inherent good in the electing of others to make our most crucial collective decisions for us. There are many different ways to practice democracy, to pursue the elusive ideal that are subject to a decision – who must suffer for it, benefit from it, or in any case, live with it – must be the ones who make that decision, together. So there is no reason why our faith compels you to do anything in particular with yourself this Tuesday, except that this is the particular system we have at this time, and if you are a citizen of this country, and legally an adult, and have not been stripped of your right by incarceration, then you have some power over what sort of world we will wake up to on Wednesday. Whether or not the people in the hold will continue to go hungry, indeed, whether or not we will all wake up to a hole in the boat.

Whether you retain the right and responsibility of the franchise or not, you have the still some power, I promise. To volunteer, to campaign, to organize. If you do not like candidates available to you in this election, find someone you would like better – yourself included – and encourage them to answer a call to public service. If you do not like the system of our voting itself, I urge you to work to change. There is much more we could do, as a nation, to ensure that every person who wishes to can exercise their right to vote, and that those votes can lead to outcomes and officials that better reflect the intent of the people who cast them. Of all the electoral systems in the world, we are among the most hostile to the creation of new political parties – we could only be more so if they were banned outright. And the rigidity of our two-party system distorts the major parties we do have, and leaves them either beholden to the most extreme attitudes of their base or insulated from their chief concerns all-together. Perhaps you’d like to do something about one of those problems, or both.

A political election, like nearly everything else in life, is a collision between the ideal, and the practical. In any choice regarding parties, candidates, or legislation, there is some degree of compromise involved. Unless you, or someone you love and trust even more than yourself, is running for high office, then there will always be some space between what you might wish for, and the options available to you. But democracy is not holy because it is pure, it is sacred because it is messy. Because it is complicated enough to matter, and touch upon the real problems faced by people in their real lives. No matter what happens on Tuesday, there is work to be done on Wednesday. Some of it will be different, pending the outcome, but much of it the same. The struggle for the rights and dignity of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people will still be far from over. The millennia-old dominance of men over all other genders will still be in place – no matter who wins, friends – and still need to be finally toppled. The architecture of racial injustice, built up over long centuries of suffering and death, still today the cause of so much suffering and death, will still need to be dismantled. The ethos which holds that one religion is superior and all others inferior will still be abroad in the land and in need of confrontation. Your power, this Tuesday, to make some incremental progress in each of these areas is real, and for that reason it is a profound responsibility. It is also just one link in a long chain: whether that chain is pulling us all up or holding us all down will depend on what we do on Wednesday, and every day after. That is my good news for you this morning.

And know that, having said all of this, I am largely preaching to the choir. That half or more of you have voted already, and that the decision of how you would vote was made by you months ago. So if what I have said to you this morning you already basically know, then I call on you to get out there folks, and tell your friends. Tell your family. Tell strangers in the street. Tell everyone you can, that they have power, too. Whether or not they realize it and whether or not they want it. Not enough of it, in most cases, but we can all get a little bit more of it, if we use what we have, together.

I want to close with a brief word about the four questions appearing on the ballot here in Massachusetts. As with candidates and parties, I won’t presume to tell you how you ought to vote, but I do feel a responsibility to illuminate the moral framework in which each of these matters rests.

Question 1 asks about adding a new slot parlor in the commonwealth. People are largely entitled to do as they will for recreation, and I find no basis in our tradition to deny a person’s right to gamble, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or engage in any of the other vices I don’t enjoy, any more than we might deny someone’s right to eat fried food, or drink excessive amounts of corn syrup, or stay up too late reading about the election on the internet – all vices that I am provably in the thrall of. But the business of commercial gambling depends upon exploiting addiction. Without people who are psychologically compelled to gamble – rather than merely enjoying it as an occasional distraction – these businesses can’t generally turn a profit. With or without one more slot parlor, there will still be opportunities to gamble, and to do it in Massachusetts. I cannot, therefore, see an argument for creating one more opportunity for a private business to make money on the backs of people struggling with addiction.

Question 2 asks about approval for new charter schools in our state. Of the four questions on our ballot, I believe this may be the most controversial among people in this room. As a movement, our commitment to ensuring accessible, quality education for all people is possibly our single most unswerving commitment. Nationally, charter schools are championed as a source of innovation in public schooling, providing an increase range of choices to children and their guardians and promoting greater opportunities for learning. It would be impossible to say that no charter school has ever succeeded in this regard – it would only take one committed teacher, or one accomplished student to disprove that, and there are certainly many of these. But also, nationally, charter schools have served as a vehicle for undermining the victories of teachers’ unions, for side-stepping accountability to local communities, including parents, and have offered a back-door for private, for-profit businesses to grow wealthy at the expense of the children they purport to serve. Again, it would be wrong to say that every charter school is the problem, but it would also be wrong to dismiss all the structural criticisms based on the individual students, teachers, and parents who have had positive experiences. As a product of public schools myself, and specifically of alternative public schools which were teacher-centered in their leadership and student-centered in their outcomes, I believe fiercely in the need to reform and restore our system of public education which has been systematically denigrated and dismantled in the 17 years since I graduated from high school. I’m not convinced that charter schools, in their current form, should be an increasing element of that project. I also know, from talking with some of you, that this is an issue which reasonable, principled, compassionate people can disagree on. I ask you to remember that, no matter whether you are celebrating or lamenting the result on Tuesday night, someone seated near you this morning will be doing the opposite.

Question 3 would ban the sale of caged animals for their meat, eggs, or other produce. I suspect you already know what your vegan minister thinks on this issue. My advice to you is as it always is with regard to food: know where yours comes from. Understand what goes into its production. And if you cannot stomach any element of that process, let that guide you as to what you choose to put into your stomach.

Question 4 would legalize the recreational use of marijuana by anyone 21 or over, something that is already permitted for medical reasons and largely decriminalized for all other purposes. I say largely, because as long as the sale and production of the substance is illegal, there are and still will be people arrested and punished for doing what is supposed to be a negligible, tolerated misdeed. Despite the fact that the assumptions strangers make based on my haircut, lead folks to try to sell the stuff to me on a somewhat regular basis, I’m not a particular fan of marijuana, and I don’t promote its use. I would say that I feel towards it about as I do towards alcohol: I’d just as soon as not our society were rid of the stuff, but it’s easy for me to dismiss an intoxicant I do not take pleasure in. I find no nobility in judging others for their enjoyment of the stuff, however. Should this measure pass, there will be work to do on the regulation side, and charge you that if you vote yes, you will have some responsibility to ensure that this new, lucrative industry does not go to benefit only affluent and almost-exclusively white entrepreneurs. If the poor people and people of color, presently in jail for the sale or production of marijuana are locked out of this new, legal industry, a profound injustice will have been compounded. But I will also say this: if you have ever smoked pot, when it was against the law for you to do so, and you didn’t go to jail for it, you need to vote yes on this measure, if only to ensure for others, the same luck which you enjoyed.


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