READING: from the Book of Face
(Facebook post by sepulchritude)
One thing I don’t think people realize is that in arguments about human rights, it’s not about trying to persuade the other party. It’s not about them at all. They’ve already made up their mind.
It’s about persuading the audience.
If I call out my teacher on being homophobic, I’m not trying to change his opinion. I’m trying to convince any closeted kids in the room that they’re not the monsters he’s made them out to be.
If I argue with my aunt about how racist she’s being, it’s not because I expect to change her mind. It’s because I’m hoping to God my cousin’s kids hear and learn that maybe skin color doesn’t mean what she says it means.
People will try to hush you and say, “They’re not going to change their minds, don’t bother.” But it’s not about them. It was never about them.
SERMON: “Spirit of Faith”
It is sometimes said that, if we want to get along, there are two things we must never talk about: religion and politics. This morning I’m going to talk about both. But I think we’ll still get along OK. For one thing, talking about religion is my job.
For another, we have a shared understanding of our church as a civic institution. This church is known in New Orleans as a place where public meetings and organizing activities happen, and we are known for showing up at civic spaces and events; and we agree that working for social justice is part of living our faith. We sometimes disagree about the specifics of how we practice our faith together, such as whether draping our “Black Lives Matter” banner across the altar feels more political or more faithful – and we have formed a consensus, I think, that we prefer to have that message displayed permanently on the outside of our building than permanently on our altar, and that this banner behind me should be displayed, or stored accessibly, in another place and, most importantly, brought with us to events in civic spaces like the annual Martin Luther King holiday parade. But we do not dispute that justice work and civic responsibility are important parts of living our faith.
It is said* that “faith without works is dead.” It is also said** that three quarters of the public are at best half-attentive to public issues, and another fifth pay no attention at all. That’s because it costs a person something to be politically active – it can cost money in the form of actual expenses, or income foregone because your attention was on politics and public education instead of on making your living; it also costs a lot of time and effort and takes an emotional toll, and all that taken together is unsustainable for most people. Those who are half-attentive to public life are keeping up pretty well, all things considered. And so – just as a practical matter – we ought to be able to expect public officials and other civic leaders to be honest and moral and accountable, and not have to wear ourselves out making sure they are. Ninety-five percent of us don’t become activists, for lots of good reasons. So those who do, those in and out of the media and politics who actively pursue the work of social justice – the observation, the study, the research, the analysis, the organizing, the public education, the public witness, the public meetings, the private meetings, the fundraising, all that goes into holding public officials accountable – those who do all that compose just five percent of us.
We have reason to be grateful and gracious to those few who make it possible to be half-attentive and still make a difference. I know I am! I try to show it by showing up, but I can never show up for all the things I’m grateful folks are working on. I was apologizing to Angela Kinlaw once, that I had missed a couple of events for the People’s Assembly, and do you know what? She was very gracious to me, saying that that was normal in organizing work, and that one of the ways organizers keep the work sustainable is to step in and step out as we have to, knowing that we are not alone in it. Another way we keep it sustainable is to accept opportunities to be joyful, to mark them and savor them. Carnival, I believe, is a spiritual necessity for organizers: to experience the simple delights of it, and to feel the good will of neighbors, the greeting of strangers as friends that goes on spontaneously on a parade route – it’s a source of hope and renewal, sustenance for faithful work.
The call of faith is to know why we organize and work for justice:
* we do it for the liberation of all persons, to dismantle collective habits and systems of oppression;
* we do it for fairness to all persons, to form new collective habits and enact justice, equity, and compassion for everyone;
* we do it for the full humanity of all persons, to promote – beyond worth and dignity – the freedom to live the kind of lives we all want: where we and our children are safe, and have the resources and opportunities we need to live free and happy.
We organize and work for justice so that all of us can have that quality of life and liberty, and success in our pursuit of happiness.
The civic role of the church is to support organizing and other means of promoting public reasoning. In a democratic society, justice requires public reasoning that takes into account everyone’s needs and the impact of social systems on everyone’s well-being. The moral quality of a society is measured by the quality of justice and partnerships it realizes. Society depends upon the moral leadership of politicians to undertake public reasoning that leads us toward best practices of justice and partnership. And politicians’ morality depends upon ours.
My former landlords, when I used to live over here on Joseph Street, are Tulane professors; one of them – professor of political science Gary Remer – has a new book called Ethics and the Orator: The Ciceronian Tradition of Political Morality. It’s part of a rediscovery of Cicero going on now in the social sciences. An icon of Western thought from medieval into modern times, Cicero’s reputation suffered as the modern industrial economy became established.
Scholar Neal Wood has described Cicero’s relatively recent fall from favor: “… the gentlemanly values of Cicero,” he writes, “so much a part of precapitalist agrarian society … were rendered anachronistic by the … rise of capitalism[. T]he abuses and deprivations brought about by a growing industrialization and urbanization, the mobilization of a massive factory workforce laboring and living under the most onerous physical conditions[,] led to demands for social justice and democracy. … Cicero, the sworn enemy of popular rule, … could hardly have attracted the intellectual spokesmen … for … change. … But in the very circles that feared … social reform, other forces helped to deflate Cicero’s former reputation. … [The nineteenth] century … prized originality far beyond the popularization of time-honored ideas. … [T]he pompous, pretentious, and long-winded moralism of Cicero was simply alienating. … German scholars, … after … hopes for German unity [were] dashed in the [failed revolutions] of 1848, … discovered in Julius Caesar the charismatic hero who had brought order into the chaos of the last days of the Republic… Cicero was a second-rate, indecisive, disruptive politician and muddled thinker who paled beside the clear-minded, purposeful, and magnetic Caesar, a brilliant and cultured leader in war and peace. Cicero’s reputation has never recovered from the stresses and shifts in fashion of the nineteenth century.”
Wood continues: “Cicero may have been a mediocre philosopher, … but to say this is not to suggest an absence of anything new and valuable in his thought. … Cicero was the first major social and political thinker of antiquity to offer a concise formal definition of the state. He was also the first to stress private property, its crucial role in society, and the importance of the state for its protection. … He was the first … to distinguish … state from government, and … state from society, … the first … to be concerned with the mechanics of politics, with political tactics and strategy, and with the serious problem of the role of violence in political life. He was the first thinker to devote considerable attention to the details of governmental economic policy … Cicero was really the first major thinker who can be called a thoroughgoing and systematic constitutionalist, a dedicated upholder of the rule of law, conceiving of government as a trust with a sacred responsibility to the governed, and advocating civil resistance to tyranny. … Permeating his reflections on all these subjects was a marked moral, economic, and political individualism” which has strong resonances with our civic culture today.
Professor Remer describes how, to Cicero’s way of thinking, politicians’ morality depends upon ours. The key observation is the same one that “sepulchritude” made on Facebook: public oratory is not addressed to someone who has already made up their mind, but to the undecided public who are listening in.
Cicero believed that humans are – to borrow Robert Bellah’s phrase – “social animals,” and he thought that social quality stemmed from a natural instinct for association – the Latin word he used for “association” was congregatio, from which we get “congregation.” That instinct leads larger groups of us to agree to form social compacts – the Latin word he used for this was civitas, “city.” The laws and customs of a city arise from experience, and from the lessons of experience come general agreements about justice and an understanding of the common interest and common good. Upon these understandings, still larger groups of us form republics – res publica, in Latin, “things of the people” or “of the collective.” The best state gradually perfects the principles of justice and partnership that it was founded on. Its laws – civil laws – address the needs of its specific community, taking into account natural laws that apply in any human community. Civil laws are human works; natural laws are givens, beyond our power to bring about or deserve or earn or achieve. For Cicero, human reason was the basis of moral choices; by our nature we foresee consequences of our possible actions using our reason and imagination, and are disposed to choose actions that accord with the four cardinal virtues: justice, wisdom, courage, and decorum.
By “decorum” Cicero means something like the way we here may have disagreements about how to go about expressing and living our commitment to justice, but we do not dispute that justice work and civic responsibility are an important part of living our faith. The consensus about the importance of justice is part of our decorum: to say in this community that justice is unimportant to a life of faith would get a reaction.
So, when that Facebooker “sepulchritude” says it’s about the audience, not the other party, another way to say that is, it’s about making decorum evident, articulating if not defining its content. It’s about making sure there’s a visible reaction when someone oversteps its bounds.
And that kind of reaction, Cicero recognizes, is a political mechanism. Mayor Landrieu could not come here and say that our church, or any faith group, has no business taking a civic role, without getting a reaction. The church’s civic role is a given; to say otherwise is, Cicero would say, a breach of decorum – the statement does not conform to our shared values. Decorum, and the other virtues, act as political restraints on power. We expect our leaders to represent our values, to be brave, to act with due care and consideration, and to be fair. Thus are leaders constrained to exercise power in harmony with decorum, courage, wisdom, and justice.
Cicero was aware that one can exercise power wrongly behind a facade of virtue. Hence his famous maxim, on the cover of your Order of Worship: “to be, rather than to seem.” He struggled with this. The duties of the state sometimes require coercion, which does not sit easily with the cardinal virtues, nor with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Just as our individual inner lives are fields of self-discovery, self-culture, self-discipline, self-acceptance, and self-forgiveness, so our collective public life is a field for discovery, custom, discipline, acceptance, and forgiveness. How else to gradually perfect through experience the principles of justice and partnership that our society is founded on?
The cries we hear today against normalizing bad behavior – whether it’s expressing prejudiced attitudes or committing violent acts – are reactions to things that do not reflect the values that most Americans share. Some of those cries, and indeed some of the expressions of prejudice, are efforts to assert what those shared values are, and what living them looks like. It’s all part of forming a more perfect Union, as the Constitution puts it. And as it concerns values, there is certainly a civic role for religious institutions, and a place in public reasoning for the church to show up.
May we continue to show up wherever values are discussed in public discourse; may we be confident in our civic role; and may we have gratitude for the activists and organizers – without whose dedication we would be less confident, and without whose steadfast work we would not know when and where our voices and presence were needed. So may it be. Amen.
* in the New Testament book, James
** for example, by W. Russell Neuman in The Paradox of Mass Politics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986)