“Spirit of Faith” 2/18/2018

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)


“Spirit of Power” 2/4/2018

READING: from The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen

Democratic freedom can certainly be used to enhance social justice and a better and fairer politics. The process, however, is not automatic and requires activism on the part of politically engaged citizens. …

[T]he secularism of democratic India has broadly speaking survived intact, despite occasional strains, with mutual tolerance and respect. That … has not … prevented periodic outbursts of sectarian violence, often fed by political groups that benefit from such divisiveness. The effect of sectarian demagoguery can be overcome only through … championing … broader values … The recognition of the multiple identities of each person, of which religious identity is only one, is crucially important in this respect; for example, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians in India not only share a nationality, but, depending on the individual, can share other identities, such as a language, a literature, a profession, a location and many other bases of categorization. Democratic politics allows the opportunity to discuss these non-sectarian affiliations and their rival claims over religious divisions. … The practice of democracy can certainly assist in bringing out a greater recognition of the plural identities of human beings. …

The success of democracy is not merely a matter of having the most perfect institutional structure that we can think of. It depends inescapably on our actual behavior patterns and the working of political and social interactions. There is no chance of resting the matter in the ‘safe’ hands of purely institutional virtuosity. The working of democratic institutions … depends on the activities of human agents …


SERMON: “Spirit of Power” Rev. Paul Beedle

When he says, “The success of democracy is not merely a matter of having the most perfect institutional structure that we can think of,” Amartya Sen states concisely his chief criticism of philosophical theories about justice.

I remember taking a class in Ethics from the Philosophy department at Cornell University. The professor was Terry Irwin, who had taught at Harvard before coming to Cornell, was making the transition from associate to full professor around the time he taught me; he went on to teach at Oxford about ten years ago. What I most remember about him is his Scottish* accent, to which I had to tune my ear. I remember a part of the class when the philosopher we were studying talked a lot about “states of the world” – meaning the conditions under which we make ethical choices – and Professor Irwin would speak of “stay-uts.” Also, he had a way of pausing at the end of a sentence occasionally, holding his head perfectly still, and shifting his eyes back and forth, as if he were either searching for his next thought or else checking to see if we were following him. [LONG PAUSE] I’d be sitting with my pen poised, like you might sit with your fingers above the keyboard, waiting for the little pinwheel to stop spinning.

It was a good class. I remember liking it, f’r a’ that. And we spent a lot of time there talking about a philosophy of justice worked out by an American philosopher named John Rawls. (As it happens, Rawls also taught at Harvard, Cornell, and Oxford.) Little did I know that Rawls was the dominant philosophical theorist on justice. His theory was that justice was something an assembly of people would reasonably agree on, especially if they didn’t know what social position they would occupy going forward. They would agree, he asserted, that justice was fairness. He imagined such an assembly deliberating about a perfect system of justice before having to live under it, a situation he called “the original position.” If you can credit it, this theory has become the touchstone for academic ideas about justice, at least in philosophy departments, starting in the early 1970s.

It’s worth noting that this theory was how Rawls expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War. In political circumstances not unlike our own, when the reigning conception of justice promoted from the White House was punishment, Rawls asserted instead that justice was fairness. And he conceived fairness in terms of a perfectly designed system of institutional justice. To which Amartya Sen objects: “The success of democracy is not merely a matter of having the most perfect institutional structure that we can think of.”

Their disagreement reminds me again of that moment in the 2016 presidential campaign, when Black Lives Matter activists spoke of changing hearts, and Hillary Clinton replied, “I don’t believe you change hearts; I believe you change laws.” Changing laws can move us toward a more perfect system – as Martin Luther King put it, “laws can restrain the heartless” – but Sen is saying there’s more to it than that. Where is he coming from?

At the beginning of 1943, after victories in battle at Stalingrad and El Alamein, the Allied powers had begun to reverse the Axis occupations in Europe and Africa. In May, they would defeat Axis forces in North Africa. Their summer invasion of Sicily would lead by September to Italy’s surrender. During this season of success in battle, a tragedy was unfolding in the Indian state of Bengal: a famine that by July was claiming some 26,000 lives each week.

As a child, Amartya Sen witnessed this tragedy. His subsequent study of famines earned him the Nobel Prize in Economics, twenty years ago this year. Among his findings were that famines rarely affect more than about 5% of the population, and are easily prevented by redistributing the food on hand. Having more food is not an absolute necessity for successful famine relief. It turns out that democratic accountability in the affected community is more important. Indeed, Sen says, “no major famine has ever occurred in a functioning democracy with regular elections, opposition parties, basic freedom of speech, and a relatively free media (even when the country is very poor and in a seriously adverse food situation).”

What caused the famine in Bengal in 1943 was the presence of soldiers and war personnel, which increased the demand for food, causing food prices to rise, and pricing low-income Bengalis out of the food market. Bengal was actually exporting food during the famine, per policy of the British colonial government. The facts of the situation were suppressed by a combination of government censorship and voluntary media self-censorship, out of concern to keep up public morale in wartime. The government made the famine worse by moving food from the countryside to the cities, in order to avoid urban unrest. Also, the government banned transfer of food between the Indian states. Even with all these harmful policies in place, the famine could have been prevented or stopped by providing purchasing power (in other words, access) to people with low income – whether through subsidies or a jobs program or direct distribution of food or something else. The government believed that famine was not possible in Bengal, because it produced so much food. But it wasn’t about having, it was about sharing. The government took no action for ten months as thousands died every week. Finally one newspaper, the Calcutta Statesman, broke the silence and forced public discussion of the problem. After that, action was soon taken and the famine was ended.

Sen takes from this experience the obvious lesson that we do not live in perfect systems, that public discourse is essential for addressing their flaws. His critique of Rawls’s theory of justice is that it offers no guidance about how to move from our imperfect state toward a more just condition. He accepts Rawls’s assertion that justice is fairness, and recommends democratic institutions, not perfect ones, as vehicles that let us move toward justice.

What features of democratic systems make them effective vehicles for realizing, not perfect justice, but more justice? Sen named some of them in relation to preventing famines: regular elections, opposition parties, basic freedom of speech, and a relatively free media. What is it that these features achieve? Together, they support public reasoning.

Sen offers actual democratic institutions as a replacement for the imaginary assembly in Rawls’s “original position.” Letting go of the perfect, he embraces best practices. This, too, is informed by his experience of democracy in India. Through democracy, India has found a way to hold together a vastly diverse population – ethnically, religiously, economically, socially, culturally – with occasional lapses into violence but also steady progress toward greater justice for all – across categories of gender, caste, and other traditional grounds for oppression. He lifts up the importance of public reasoning in this political achievement. Through democratic institutions, he says, “the secularism of democratic India has, broadly speaking, survived intact, despite occasional strains, with mutual tolerance and respect.” And by “secularism,” he means a common ground that includes religious identities and viewpoints, not (as we commonly conceive) some kind of exclusion of religious ideas. That inclusion of religious identities and views in public discourse has made meaningful mutual tolerance and respect possible across deep differences and divisions.

In place of the perfect system, Sen offers an ideal discipline for human agents working within an imperfect system. Borrowing an idea from Adam Smith, the 18th-century founder of modern economic theory, he invokes the ideal of “the impartial spectator.” Rather than imagining an assembly of people ignorant of their future situation, he imagines people aware of their current situation, and able to step outside it to consider what an outsider – someone impartial, without a stake in the system and free of its pressures – might observe about it. We know it is possible for a person to do that. Sen identifies the real human power of imagination as a resource for justice work. He moves the role of imagination from some hypothetical past to the real, immediate present. Equipped with this tool, participants in a system can create space for passions to cool. Individual participants can imagine the limits of their own views, not merely the limits – or the insults – of others’. Following this best practice, participants prepare themselves for dialogue aimed at public reasoning – not argument against each other, but finding common agreement and mutual understanding – that can lead to shared perceptions and collaboration toward building a more just society.

Instead of the oppression of perfection, Sen argues for the liberation of empowerment – a self-disciplined, accountable use of power by all, for the common good – a messy, imperfect means toward more justice, with a track record of success when a critical mass of us practice it.

We have an opportunity now to test Sen’s theory: Rev. William Barber and his group, Repairers of the Breach, are reviving Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign on its 50th anniversary.

The Poor People’s Campaign is focusing on four broad issues: poverty, systemic racism, the war economy, and ecological devastation. From now through April, its activities will include outreach, issues education, organizer trainings, and events planning. Then from May 13th until June 21st will be “Forty Days of Action” – mass meetings, arts and cultural events, faith services, and nonviolent civil disobedience – all aimed at changing the national narratives about poverty, systemic racism, the war economy, and ecological devastation; changing hearts and minds; amplifying work already happening by coordinated action. And after the Forty Days, the hope is that the leadership and relationships forged will continue to build and sustain a broad movement for resistance and reform.

The Poor People’s Campaign is like the Calcutta Statesman, breaking silence about crises that have resulted from systemic problems that need remedy and reform. Locally, organizations like the Together New Orleans, the People’s Assembly, Take ‘Em Down NOLA, Step Up Louisiana, and others, have taken on this kind of role – not only calling attention to crises and injustices, but also getting elected officials to commit to address them, and then holding them publicly accountable. All their work can be amplified by the Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign means to help them be not competing organizations, but complementary ones, providing support for people in each organization to talk to each other and coordinate action where they can. And since some of us have been involved in several of these groups, the campaign also gives us a framework for imagining how we can best help connect them for effective democratic action.

Next month, local organizers for the Poor People’s Campaign are putting together listening sessions, like the one Together New Orleans held last fall. And on April 4th, a Wednesday, they will provide buses for us to go together to Memphis for the Martin Luther King commemoration there, where Rev. Barber will speak. These are excellent opportunities for us to join our neighbors to resist hate and promote love and justice, and to show up as a bridge connecting local needs to a statewide and national movement.

As Amartya Sen has said: “Democratic freedom can certainly be used to enhance social justice and a better and fairer politics. The process, however, is not automatic and requires activism on the part of politically engaged citizens. … “The working of democratic institutions … depends on the activities of human agents.”

May our activities move our society toward more justice. Amen.


* Subsequent to delivering this sermon, I learned that Prof. Irwin is, in fact, Irish, not Scottish. (My error is another example of imperfection in the world…)


“Spirit of Justice” 1/14/2018

We like to think of ourselves as “The Church that Shows Up.” We have t-shirts that say that on them. And if you want one, I’m sure we can get you one, right? Who can help with that?

In the spirit of being that church, on Wednesday, nine of us – five members of our church, one member of the North Shore congregation, plus Rev. Deanna, Rev. Melanie, and I – showed up at Criminal Court to observe the most recent court appearance of Nicholas Pogozelski, Joshua Simmons, Rashaad Piper, and Dejuan Paul, the four young men charged with second-degree robbery of UUA employees James Curran and Tim Byrne on Bienville Street in the Quarter, last June during our General Assembly. Groups of us have been showing up regularly since their bail hearing at the end of June. Our goal is to be a witness and presence for the defendants at these proceedings, to highlight the humanity of these four young black men, in the hope that we can persuade the attorneys and judge to opt for a Restorative Justice approach instead of throwing the lives of these young men into the destructive routines of our Justice system’s standard punitive approach. To that end, we have also had meetings with Sheriff’s Office officials, staff of the Center for Restorative Approaches, and the District Attorney. These have been surprisingly encouraging – there is more receptiveness to the idea of restorative justice than we had anticipated (though we are not convinced that everyone understands restorative justice the same way). And, to affirm their humanity, we have regularly made donations to the jail’s commissary accounts for these four young men.

Between August and November, there were five court appearances concerned with pre-trial conferences and competency hearings, the first two of which were false starts – the judge didn’t show up for the first one, and the second ended up being rescheduled because the doctors, who were needed to make a determination of competency, were occupied with another case in a different courtroom. We waited several hours for them to arrive before the court gave up and rescheduled. So this part of the process didn’t really get started until October. Competency was affirmed on November 2nd, and the first appearance for what the Court calls “motions” was last Wednesday – scheduled in November for “after the holidays.”

Wednesday’s court session was very interesting. After taking care of some quick procedural business for other cases, Judge Camille Buras called the prosecutor and the four defense attorneys into her chambers for what turned out to be a five-minute conference. When they emerged, the judge stated that since she was not getting the information she wanted in chambers, she wanted to hear the case in open court. The information she wasn’t getting, that she now proceeded to ask for publicly, was the basic facts of the case. That was interesting.

“I need to know facts.” “I need to know the relative roles.” “Count One, second degree robbery of Mr. Byrne, all four defendants as principals. Who struck Mr. Byrne?” Still getting no reply that satisfied her, Judge Buras said to the prosecutor, “The state should have the facts at your command. What is your theory of the case?” It was remarkable that the state’s prosecutor did not present a theory. And I think probably a judge does not expect to have to ask for one in open court, and so bluntly.

I had to wonder why this was happening. In the bail hearings, the state’s whole presentation was to show a surveillance video. Did he think the video spoke for itself? Or was he holding back, hoping that the four defense attorneys would be drawn into the question of facts and maybe lose their solidarity? In other words, was he lazy, or lazy like a fox?

In the end, Judge Buras declared that she did not have enough information for pre-trial, the state and defense attorneys mutually agreed to a continuance, and they set a new date for motions and testimony: the last day of this month, Wednesday, January 31st.

So this is our justice system in operation. As with any sort of system, there is not much reflection involved in its operation. The point of a system, it seems, is to act on reflection that is done and over with. At least, that’s how it shakes out when ordinary people are just trying to do their jobs. Reflecting on the design of the system is easily regarded as “not my job” by those working within it. Those folks are making careers and commitments to that system, or else just trying to get along serving it and not interested in shaking it up. And so it’s real work to introduce a new idea that implies large changes in how the system operates.

In his book, The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen writes that “any theory of justice has to choose an informational focus, that is, it has to decide which features of the world we should concentrate on in judging a society and in assessing justice and injustice.” Judge Buras demonstrated the informational focus of the court’s theory of justice – the theory institutionalized in the court system’s design: who did what, and what does the law say the penalty is for doing that? Sen highlights the role of public discourse and public reasoning to broaden the focus of folks who are just trying to do their jobs. Public discourse and public reasoning, he implies, are forces in society that can shape folks’ expectations about what it means to “do one’s job.” We all interpret the world through an entangled collection of facts, social conventions, and values. Sometimes we lose sight of which is which – is that a fact, or a social convention? Is this a social convention, or a value? Active public discourse can produce better public reasoning, lead to better social conventions, and more congruity between our shared values and the actual operation of the systems we live in.

Ibram Kendi offers a valuable lens for understanding certain social conventions in American public reasoning. The title of his book – Stamped From the Beginning – suggests the power that social systems have to frame our habits of thought and shape our public reasoning.

He describes three perspectives on race that shape American public discourse. The first he calls “segregationist.” This perspective rationalizes oppression, and interprets resistance a signal to remove resistors from society. This was the perspective of the antebellum American Colonization Society, whose purpose was to remove free blacks from American society. Henry Clay promoted it with his famous rhetorical question: “Can there be a nobler cause than that which, whilst it proposed to rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion of its population, contemplates the spreading of the arts of civilized life, and the possible redemption from ignorance and barbarism of a benighted quarter of the globe?” Yes, Henry, there can. Because it would be nobler not to characterize free black people as useless and pernicious, or Africa as ignorant and barbaric. But you get the point: Henry saw danger, and supported a cause that aimed to remove it. And every northern state legislature had endorsed colonization by the time our church was founded in 1833. Kendri reports that in the 1840s, as antislavery voting blocks began to form in the North, free blacks there were ten times more likely than Southern blacks to be classified insane. The measure of sanity was, in part, acceptance of white superiority.

The second perspective Kendri identifies, he calls “assimilationist.” This boils down to asking the oppressed to get with the program. Instead of removal, assimilationists favor strategies of “uplift” and education. The Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction was an assimilationist program; the eugenics movement was another; so was school integration; and such programs – that treat non-white people as problems to solve, or children to raise – persist today.

Kendri calls both of these “racist” perspectives, because they do not challenge assumptions that white values and white social conventions are superior and to be preferred. Indeed, they depend upon, and reinforce them.

The third perspective, then, he calls “antiracist.” The antiracist perspective seeks to deconstruct and dismantle systems of oppression, rather than protect or adapt to them. The work we are doing in court for restorative justice is of this kind. So is the work we do for reproductive justice. So is the sanctuary movement.

In a passage in The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen interprets the parable of the Good Samaritan. He focuses in on the question Jesus asked at the end of the story: “Who was the wounded man’s neighbor?” Comes the answer: “The man who helped him.” Sen expounds:

“The Samaritan is linked to the wounded [man] through the event itself: he found the stricken man, saw the need to help, provided that help and was now in a relationship with the injured person. It does not matter whether the Samaritan was moved by charity, or by a ‘sense of justice,’ or by some deeper ‘sense of fairness in treating others as equals.’ Once he finds himself in this situation, he is in a new ‘neighbourhood.’” [Sen p. 172]

That is a good summary of the spiritual journey of justice work. Through entering relationship, we become neighbors in a real, experiential way, and as a result find our thoughts “in a new neighborhood” – moved on from disposing of or “fixing” others, into the neighborhood of respect, alliance, and love.

To remind you, the next court appearance for Nicholas, Joshua, Rashaad, and Dejuan, will be on the last day of this month, Wednesday, January 31st. You’re welcome to join us if you are able – it’s at Criminal Court, the big Courthouse on the corner of Broad and Tulane; we’ll meet there at 9:00am. Talk to Jolanda Walter for details about where and how to show up.

May we each find ourselves in the neighborhood of justice and love. Amen.


“The Resin Rules” 12/24/2017 (evening)

CAROL #259 “We Three Kings”

HOMILY, part one: Gold

You all know The Golden Rule: “whoever has the gold makes the rules.” No, wait. That’s not right. It’s “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

We speak of The Golden Rule as a wisdom teaching found in all faith traditions. It can be found in all the ethical and moral literature preserved from ancient Egypt and India, Persia and Greece, to multiple statements in each of the living religious traditions – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Confucian, Taoist, Wiccan, Humanist, Existentialist, even Scientologist. And gold is an apt symbol for such a teaching. Gold shines, and doesn’t tarnish. That quality makes it precious, valuable. Chemists call a metal like gold that resists corrosion and oxidation, “noble.” They also call it “inert” and “unreactive.” These are qualities of ideals: they do not quite connect to realities we experience within or about us. They might be present, and very close – a gold ring, or a filling – but an ideal even so close remains apart, inert, unreactive, noble. However close to our hearts, our ideals always shine afar.

“Gold I bring to crown him again,” says Gaspar. Again? He was just born!

That’s what we do with ideals and Golden Rules: we crown them again, keep them shining, lift them high. We will never be perfect enough to embody them fully or practice them flawlessly. But they shine, and we follow.
*CAROL #253 “O Come, All Ye Faithful”


HOMILY, part two: Frankincense

As I talk about the two resin gifts, Katie will invite you to experience these resins. There will be samples of the resin itself for you to touch and feel, and there will be a cup with cotton soaked in essential oil from that resin. So get ready now to experience frankincense.

There is a tradition about the three kings, that Gaspar bringing the gold was old, that Melchior bringing the frankincense was middle-aged, and Balthazar bringing the myrrh was young. Their traditional ages are 60, 40, and 20. This tradition about their ages suggests the nature of wisdom: that it is gained lifelong through lived experience, and that its gifts are different at different stages of life.

There are different traditions about where the kings came from. In one, old Gaspar is from India, Melchior is from Persia, and young Balthazar is from Babylon. These locations – India, Persia, and Babylon – are connected to the idea that they were not kings at all but scholars, wise men. Alternatively, old Gaspar is from Tarsus in modern Turkey, Melchior is from Arabia, and young Balthazar is from what is now Yemen, or else across the Red Sea in Ethiopia. These locations are connected to the gifts: Tarsus was a trading center and saw a lot of gold, and the plants whose resins make frankincense and myrrh came from Arabia and from Yemen and Ethiopia. In fact, all three gifts can be found in or near Ethiopia, linking them in legend to the Queen of Sheba and thus back to Solomon, symbol of both kingship and wisdom. So these layers of symbol fold back on one another, pointing to what it feels like to strive after ideals and Golden Rules: we never embody them fully nor practice them flawlessly, but we consent to govern ourselves by them, and in so doing learn and grow in wisdom.

Frankincense represents the striving after whatever casts light on our world and our way toward truth and meaning, the hope of becoming our best selves and of being together a beloved community. It is associated traditionally with prayer, because it was and still is widely used in religious services and spiritual practices. We follow the light of hope and experience wherever it goes, to embody and practice the wisdom we know as best we can.
*CAROL #237 “The First Nowell”


HOMILY, part three: Myrrh

Katie will now share samples of myrrh: again, pieces of myrrh resin, and a cup with cotton soaked in essential oil of myrrh.

All three of the gifts were precious for different reasons. Gold was noble, frankincense was used in the worship practice of every faith that had access to it, and myrrh was used as a medicine and in burial practices. They all had big markets. There was money to be made trading each of them.

Myrrh’s medicinal use was as an antiseptic and analgesic – to clean wounds and relieve pain. While gold is associated with kingship and frankincense with priesthood, myrrh is associated with healing. Myrrh, with its bitter perfume, represents our learning of wisdom by hard experience. When we find a Golden Rule, we are dazzled by its beauty. When we scent our lives with sweet-smelling hope, we are inspired to be our best. And when we take the bitterness of life as a medicine, it opens our depths. Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying – the gloom of our lives tests the sweetness of our ideals and the luster of our habits. Our encounter with bitterness – with suffering and disappointment, failure and imperfection, injustice and evil – refines our gold and flavors our hopes. In Christian traditions that still use incense, frankincense and myrrh are blended and burnt together, sweet with bitter, symbolizing the blend of hope and healing essential to faithful living.

The Golden Rule is an ideal. The Resin Rules – lifelong hope and lifelong learning – describe the path toward such an ideal, the Way to follow a star. And the path, the Way, is here, now, in our own town. The stars pass silently above, while here among us truth and wisdom burn within and between, waiting to shine in our streets by acts of mercy, works of justice, deeds of kindness, and presence of love. The wonder and the promise of this season are here, with us, all year round, in this precious place, our town, our home.
*CAROL #246 “O Little Town of Bethlehem”


“Let’s Try This” 12/17/2017

READING: Edward Winslow’s account of John Robinson’s Farewell Sermon, from “Winslow’s Brief Narration: the true grounds or cause of the first planting of New England”:

…he charged us … if God should reveal any thing to us by any other instrument of his, to be as ready to receive it as ever we were to receive any truth by his ministry; for he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word. He took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the Reformed Churches, who were come to a period in religion, and would go no further than the instruments of their Reformation. As, for example, the Lutherans, they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw; for whatever part of God’s will he had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it. And so also, saith he, you see the Calvinists, they stick where he left them; a misery much to be lamented; for though they were precious shining lights in their times, yet God had not revealed his whole will to them; and were they now living, saith he, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as that they had received. Here also he put us in mind of our church covenant, at least that part of it whereby we promise and covenant with God and one with another, to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us from his written word; but withal exhorted us to take heed what we received for truth, and well to examine and compare it and weigh it with other Scriptures of truth before we received it. For, saith he, it is not possible the Christian world should come so lately out of such thick … darkness, and that full perfection of knowledge should break forth at once.

SERMON: “Let’s Try This”

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading another one of those books I can’t recommend that you read. This one is Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler. Many of you remember me talking about Thomas Piketty’s Capital – a thick book dense with graphs and the technical jargon of Economics, my undergraduate field of study. I talked about that book because I thought it said something important that an informed citizen ought to know: that the notions of economic growth we have known by experience and teaching are not typical of most of human history. The destruction of capital during the two world wars left so much room for growth that we almost couldn’t help exceeding all historical norms. Based on the most thorough and careful collection of historical economic data in the history of his field, Piketty suggests that we ought not to expect a 3% or 4% growth rate, but rather the more historically typical rates of 1% or 2%.

Scheidel picks up where Piketty left off. He constructs a historical narrative of how income and wealth inequality takes shape in the processes of economic development. It is a virtuoso performance, taking in all of human economic development from prehistoric hunting-and-foraging societies through agrarian and finally to industrial societies. In his Introduction, he writes about how this kind of account is possible: “Recent years have witnessed considerable advances in the study of premodern tax records and the reconstruction of real wages, rent[-to-]wage ratios, and even [Gross Domestic Product] levels. It is not an exaggeration to say that much of this book could not have been written twenty or even ten years ago.”

One reason I can’t recommend Scheidel’s book is the technical jargon and the abundance of graphs. Another is his dispiriting thesis, that – historically – the only way income inequality has been undone is through violent upheavals: wars, revolutions, state failure or systems collapse, and severe epidemics. He calls these “the Four Horsemen of apocalyptic leveling.” But he does look hard for precedents for peaceful leveling of income and wealth inequality, and though he finds none, he does suggest that the past does not constrain the future. And he offers some new ways of looking at economic life that strike me as promising lenses for finding that better future.

One of these is his reimagining of what economists call “the factors of production.” Traditionally, we speak of land, labor, and capital. Instead, Scheidel speaks of embodied wealth, relational wealth, and material wealth. This reframing comes from his efforts to understand the economics of hunting-and-foraging societies. Land and capital just aren’t factors in the same way in that setting, since the notion of ownership is not applied as we apply it. So he had to think about what wealth was in that sort of life. And it turns out that we find these categories of wealth in our own society, but reckoned differently, or overlooked as forms of wealth. Embodied wealth is subsumed in our notion of labor; land and capital are forms of material wealth; and relational wealth is just out of focus or fragmented in our economic conceptions, but it’s there if you look for it.

Another thing he does is reintroduce to economic analysis the economic impact of political and military power. That, I think, is why he notices violence and lifts it up so starkly in his account of inequality.

I remember when I was a boy, there was a schoolteacher who lived kitty-corner from my grandmother’s house. She enjoyed visiting with children, so when we went to stay at Grandma’s house I would make a point of going over one afternoon to see her. I must have been in college one of those afternoons – that’s how long this ritual went on, she felt so much like family to me – and I told her I was going to major in Economics. “Economics!” she said, “When I was teaching school we called it ‘The Political Economy.’” You see, there was a change when the field sought to establish itself as a social science. “The Political” dropped out. Or perhaps more accurately, it gradually went more and more unacknowledged.

Scheidel says that power inequality and hierarchy existed to some degree right back into hunter-forager times; and starting with the domestication of plant and animal food sources, as economic technologies advanced, those with social or political power found opportunities to take the surplus from greater production to themselves, in that way generating inequalities in income and wealth. He says that we can “trace the concentration of resources in the hands of the few to two principal factors: economic development and predatory behavior by those powerful enough to appropriate [material] wealth [by commanding premiums].” Later in the book he adds a third factor: connections to the powerful, a form of relational wealth. “[E]ffective leveling,” he says, “required violent shocks that at least temporarily curtailed and reversed the disequalizing consequences of capital investment, commercialization, and the exercise of political, military, and ideological power by predatory elites and their associates.” The resonance of this observation with recent news events is nearly audible.

Scheidel hints that because economic development carries with it the promise of higher standards of living for all, the expectation that that promise will be fulfilled could serve to constrain economic predation. He seems to suggest that if the political culture is less coercive and more collaborative to start with, then people with more power will be more likely to use it for the common good. Specifically, since he is studying income inequality, he thinks about a socially accepted standard of what an individual’s minimum income should be. “Actual income floors are determined not merely by bare physiological subsistence,” he says, “but also by powerful social and economic factors. … Adam Smith’s definition of minimum requirements in his own day is a famous example. In his opinion, they include ‘not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without,’ such as—in England—a linen shirt and leather shoes.”

Today we speak of justice in terms of what it takes for communities to thrive, not just survive. Reproductive justice takes in not simply an individual woman’s sovereignty over her own body, but also the safety of neighborhoods, the quality of schools, the healthiness of the natural and built environment – all the things that it is indecent for a community not to provide its children. We speak of violent policing as indecent – that’s what the Black Lives Matter movement is about, lifting up the indecency of violent policing that targets communities of color. Restorative justice is about the indecency of a purely punitive and impersonal system for handling crime – it represents an indecent interpretation of that motto inscribed on our Criminal Court building, “a nation of laws, not of men.” The sanctuary movement is about lifting up the indecency of breaking up families or depriving them of means to live and basic rights in the name of border security. The “dreamers” movement is about the indecency of threatening to deport young people who have known no other homeland. We have differing opinions in society around what to do about all of these things, but they are all examples of things beyond bare physiological subsistence that we probably could find a consensus about what – as Smith put it – “creditable people, even of the lowest order” should have. If we could articulate and collectively accept standards for these kinds of things, then in a properly collaborative democratic culture, those with more wealth and power would find themselves constrained to help realize those standards, assuming that a sense of decency can reach them.

We do collectively accept destructive norms and systems. The Christmas season includes one of the worst: “Black Friday.” You do know, right, that once upon a time the term “Black Friday” was used to name the 1929 stock market crash that signaled the Great Depression? But now it means the Friday after Thanksgiving, which is “black” because retail businesses hope to make their break-even point for the year on that day. It’s “black” in the sense that accountants use: red ink records a deficit, black ink records a surplus. And I have to say again this year: if you can’t break even for the year without imposing your financial anxiety on the whole nation by offering wild discounts, then you’re doing it wrong. There’s something indecent about your business model, if that’s how you think you have to do it.

We do collectively accept destructive norms and systems. And as long as our political, social, and economic systems behave more coercively than collaboratively, we tend to stick with those destructive norms. But when we try something different and experience a better way, a more decent way, then we have a chance to train ourselves in constructive habits and shape new, healthier, more sustainable and life-giving norms. This is what the symbol and practice of covenanting stands for. We state standards for ourselves, and develop those standards by practicing them and reflecting together on our practice. Active covenanting puts trust and accountability at the center of our concerns. We get to the outcomes we want by preserving our trust in and accountability to one another. We get the outcomes we want by being and behaving like the community we want to be. By being and behaving like the community we want to be, more light and truth breaks forth.

This is why trust and accountability can serve as effective constraints on power – they are relational, not benchmark, norms. Trust and accountability are norms of covenanting that are simply absent from most legal contracts, which are written full of benchmark constraints in order to eliminate the need for trust. Similarly, trust and accountability are norms of equity in community that are subordinated in the power hierarchies of incorporation. That subordination is how the norms of a culture trend more toward coercion than collaboration and democracy. So there is something saving for society in our Unitarian Universalist heritage of covenanting.

In the Christmas season we talk and sing a lot about love and peace on earth. Covenanting is a practice of trust, connection, empathy, accountability, and hope that promises a more collaborative society, and the possibility of love and peace on earth all year round. When you get right down to it, it’s the reason for the season.

Happy Holidays –  and instead of the anxiety of break-even, may you know the love and peace of the season in your heart. Amen.


“Excelsis” 11/26/2017

My theme this morning is “Excelsis” – the highest – and my method will be a meditation on symbols. We’ve all heard that Latin word, “Excelsis,” and we’ll be hearing it a lot more soon, in Christmas carols. As a choral singer, I also know it from the Angelic Hymn – the “Gloria” – in the Catholic Mass. (And if you want to hear a rousing setting of that hymn, we’re singing Vivaldi’s “Gloria” at the NOVO/VONO Christmas concert on Saturday, December 9th, at 7:30pm – tickets are $10.) I had always assumed that the text of the “Gloria” was taken from the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel, where the shepherds go to visit the baby Jesus and his family and the angels come to sing “Glory to God in the highest.” But actually, that is NOT what the Vulgate says the angels sang. The word at that place in Luke is not “excelsis,” but “altissimis.” I did a computer search of the Vulgate for the word “Excelsis,” thinking I might discover something about how the symbol of “the highest” is used in that text – and I did, but the first thing I discovered is that “excelsis” does not occur in the place I most expected to find it.

The earliest place in the text that “Excelsis” occurs is in David’s lament over the death of Jonathan, of whom he famously says, “Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” David’s lament is addressed to Israel, not to God, so when he says “Jonathan lies slain upon thy high places,” he is speaking of the mountains, specifically of Mount Gilboa, where Jonathan and his two brothers and his father, King Saul, were killed in battle against the Philistines. Up to this point in the text as we have received it, the mountains – Mount Sinai, Mount Carmel, Mount Gilboa – have been “high places” where human beings encounter the divine, or perhaps in Saul’s case, his fate. Later on, Ezekiel will speak of mountain pastures that provide us food. But here on Mount Gilboa, there is no divine intervention, only the consequences of Saul’s own decisions and actions. And here – upon this purely ethical ground – the Vulgate first uses the word “Excelsis.”


But it uses that word most prominently in the books of Kings. Of a series of kings, starting with Solomon (who traditionally is associated with the book of Proverbs and is legendary for his wisdom), and then proceeding through Jeroboam, Jehoshaphat, Jehoash, Amaziah, Azariah, Jotham, and Ahaz, the Vulgate uses “Excelsis” where the text notes that these kings set up or let stand “high places” where people worshipped, and where later on the priests also lived. All of these kings, we are told, “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord,” except Ahaz, the last one. He did not do what was right by the Lord, and not only did he let stand the “high places” for worship, but he sacrificed his own son there. After him, we are told, “every nation still made gods of its own, and put them in the shrines of the high places which the Samaritans had made” – and we know from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan that they were not held in good repute. So these high places became a problem after a wicked man in leadership had abused them. When King Josiah came to the throne, lo! his high priest, Hilkiah, discovered an ancient book of the law. And did he discover it in a high place? Perish the thought! He found it in the Jerusalem Temple. And so on the pretext of restoring Israel to the right path, Josiah deposed the priests of the high places of all faiths other than the Temple’s and defiled their worship spaces (including those where sons were sacrificed to the god Molech); brought out of the Temple the Asherah – which scholars think represented the feminine divine in some way, perhaps as wife or consort of God – and burned it in Kidron Brook; broke down the houses of the male prostitutes in the Temple; removed the horses and chariots dedicated to the sun god from the entrance to the Temple; and commanded that everyone worship according to this rediscovered law at the Temple. Before Josiah’s reforms, in other words, the high places were where people who wanted freedom of worship went to church, and the Temple had become a place of extravagant privilege and abuse of power. And without any sense of irony, Josiah exercised his own privilege and power abusively to “make the Temple great again.” Anyway, that’s one way to tell the story. Here again, the word “Excelsis” shows up in the Vulgate in connection with ethics, in this case an ethical crisis.

The next place we find “Excelsis” is in two places in the book of Job. In both places, Job is speaking, saying that God is “in excelsis” – on high. You know Job’s dilemma: he is ethically righteous, yet he suffers, and he questions whether this is just. “God has cast me into the mire,” he says, “and I have become like dust and ashes.” (We have been burned, burned by the fire, and we are ashes, ashes and smoke, but we will rise higher and higher on the wings of compassion, justice, and hope.) Hear his prayer: “I cry to thee and thou dost not answer me; I stand, and though dost not heed me. Thou hast turned cruel to me; with the might of thy hand thou dost persecute me. Thou liftest me up on the wind, thou makers me to ride on it, and thou tossest me about in the roar of the storm. Yea, I know that thou wilt bring me to death, and to the house appointed for all living. Yet does not one in a heap of ruins stretch out his hand, and in his disaster cry for help? Did I not weep for him whose day was hard? Was not my soul grieved for the poor? But when I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came. My heart is in turmoil, and is never still; days of affliction come to meet me. I go about blackened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly, and cry for help. … My lyre is turned to mourning, and my pipe to the voice of those who weep. I have made a covenant with my eyes; … What would be my portion from God above…” – in excelsis – “Does not calamity befall the unrighteous, and disaster the workers of iniquity? Does he not see my ways, and number all my steps?” For Job, it is not outward forms of worship but courage of conscience that is troubled. Job is like one of those worshippers at a high place that Josiah persecuted – the text does not say that all those worshipping at high places were off the path of compassion, justice, and hope, it only mentions some of the things that were going wrong when freedom of worship was granted. It is by no means clear in the text that Josiah was to be praised for his abusive crackdown. Rather, the text invites the criticism I have offered, that Josiah was every bit as guilty of abusing his power as bad old King Ahaz. What do we do when we must rely on conscience instead of kings, but we suffer for it?

The Christian answer to Job’s dilemma is found in the first lines of the book of Hebrews, where the Vulgate makes its last use of “Excelsis”: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our [ancestors] by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, … When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” – in excelsis – “having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.” There is something of King Josiah’s tone in this assertion – one way only, one place only, for religious life. But now it’s “higher than the angels.” From that image, I want to turn to another: our rose window, which the designers of this room placed higher than the angels that top the ten windows to either side of us. On an insert in your Order of Worship are pictures of the individual petals of that rose.





What is it that the designers of these windows placed above the angels? It is the story of Jesus, not Jesus himself; there is no symbol of Jesus there, as there is over the main sanctuary doors, and in the twenty panels of the side windows, where a set of five symbols are repeated four times: planting, harvesting, father, Word (that word in the window is the Greek logos, not the Spanish locos), and spirit. Where symbols referring to Jesus himself occur, they are in a context: over the sanctuary door, it is part of another symbol, denoting the Trinity – Jesus is part of something larger; and in the side windows, the Trinity is part of something larger: spiritual practice – what we plant and harvest in and among ourselves. Symbols of spiritual practice are placed down here, nearest us, suggesting the proximity to our lives of spiritual practice – that what we plant and harvest in ourselves will bear fruit collectively in just laws, compassionate living, and a hopeful spirit. But up there, higher than the angels, is a story.

It’s hard to say what exactly the story is. The symbols in the rose window are pretty abstracted and hard to read. But here’s my guess: Reading from the upper right, and proceeding clockwise, I would say that what we have is the Bethlehem star; and then the tablets in the next petal represent, perhaps, the boy Jesus teaching in the Temple (he said of himself when he was older that he came to fulfill the law); and then in the bottom petal we have his miracles represented by the wedding at Cana – you see the two rings for the wedding and the water pitcher pouring out wine; next is the crucifixion with the name his persecutors gave him, “King of the Jews;” and then I interpret the next petal as the resurrection with the name his mother gave him (as the angel instructed her); and at last, on top, we have a mystery. I can make neither head nor tail of it. I asked my colleagues – posting a picture of the window in a closed Facebook group – and one of them replied that this was clearly the holy boomerang of love. I think it’s just fine to name it “Mystery” – from which we all come and to which we all return. Then we have, all together, the symbols of a life, a life like yours and mine in many respects: a birth of hope that every child is, a childhood learning what is good, a youth and young adulthood finding our gifts for the world, a life not without suffering and sacrifice, but suffering and sacrifice we survive with our authenticity (our true name, our true self) intact, returning in the end to the mystery. This journey, and our path along it, with wisdom in excelsis to guide us from mystery into mystery, is the highest thing, and the thing not squarely before us, that we often do not see, and never see easily. With that window, you either squint from here, or you climb some steps. Or maybe someone shows you a picture. It’s not easy to get a good look at. But up there is where the highest light comes in.


On my path of research about the window and “the highest,” I found that “the highest” I thought of was not “the highest” I was looking for. Instead of “excelsis,” the shepherds’ angels sang “altissimis.” I did not know that; I had assumed differently. And now I know better. It is not the different word that matters, but the clarity of knowledge and the objects for contemplation I found along my path. Spiritually, we head for the high places in our quest for courage, for wisdom about how to live lives of compassion, justice, and hope. We might find a place of storms like Mt Carmel, a place of battle like Mt Gilboa, a place of epiphany like Mt Sinai, or a place of sanctity like Mt Zion. We might set up our altar on a hill of our choosing instead of climbing far mountains every day. Whatever high place we make for, the dangers that privilege and power – like King Josiah or the attitude of the author of Hebrews – the dangers that privilege and power pose to understanding are ever-present. We still at times find our conscience challenged; we still at times will feel perplexed, disappointed, even abandoned – burned, burned by the fire, and become ashes, ashes and smoke; but we will rise higher and higher on the wings of compassion, justice, and hope. And this is our answer to Job’s dilemma: when our heart is in a holy place, we are blessed, and there we find courage, compassion, justice, and hope. Remember that the journey of your life is a portal of the highest light. May wisdom and courage be yours, and may we together create communities of compassion, justice, and hope. So may it be. Amen.


“Beyond the Box” 10/22/2017

READING: from “A Core of Silence” by Jim Reilly

A core of silence breathes beyond all words,
or else the words have little worth; …
And half the music lies within the pause
between the arches of the heart;
the print upon the page means less than ink
unless the white and black both speak.

SERMON: “Beyond the Box”

Did you know that there is such a thing as a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant? I found one online, at a website called TheCatCoach.com, owned by Marilyn Krieger, Certified Cat Behavior Consultant. I didn’t look closely into her credentials, or how they are conferred. I did read her advice, though, about why cats like boxes.

She says it’s about safety and security. “All animals have different coping mechanisms,” she says. “This is a cat’s way of dealing with stress. If she’s feeling overwhelmed or in trouble, she can retreat to a safe, enclosed space where she can observe, but can’t be seen.” She suggests that if you’re adopting a new cat, bringing your cat to a new place, or leaving your cat for the day, you should set up a few boxes. “It’ll instantly give them controlled, secure hiding places where they feel protected and calm.”

This has been studied scientifically. (Did you doubt it?) A group of new shelter cats were randomly assigned to either receive a box or not. After just a few days, researchers reported that the cats that were given boxes recovered faster and adapted to their environment more quickly than the cats without boxes.

Another reason cats like boxes is warmth. A cat’s normal body temperature is between about 100 and 103 degrees, which means they’re most comfortable in surroundings between about 85 and 95 degrees. We usually keep our homes cooler than that, so cardboard boxes can act like a blanket or comforter, keeping their body heat close to them.

I think that safety and comfort are also the reasons we like to think and act inside the boxes of accustomed patterns: routines, habits, categories of thought. But like cats, we are also curious, and we like to explore and play. We like to discover new things. And for that, we need to come out of our boxes: interrupt our routines, form different habits, discern new patterns, and reorganize our thoughts. And that’s not easy.

There’s a family story I don’t often tell, about my Aunt Ruth, my mother’s sister. That generation has passed, so there’s little harm in telling it now, other than my own discomfort and embarrassment. The story is that we had gone out to dinner – me, my folks, and my Aunt, and maybe some others – and we were up in Iowa, at a restaurant out in the countryside somewhere, a steak place as I recall. We had finished dinner and we’re walking back to the car, out on the gravel parking lot. Amid comments about how much we’d enjoyed the food, my Aunt suddenly said, “Wasn’t that a well-dressed black family at the next table?” After a beat, she added: “And they were clean.”

The tone of her comment demonstrated that my Aunt was struggling against a stereotype she had learned. She was arguing against it, citing new evidence in her experience. All of us were too ashamed of her comment to reply. We were ashamed because we knew it was an unkind, unpleasant, and insulting stereotype. Perhaps some of us, like my Aunt, had been taught it and had believed it. I had not been taught that stereotype, but I had been taught that some people believed it. The norm in my family was that it was shameful to believe such a thing, and shameful to speak the stereotype out loud. My Aunt had violated that norm.

There’s a lot we could unpack in that story. In my family, we had taken a step away from white supremacy culture, denying our connection with it by rejecting its norms. But our new norms were merely the norms of denial and shame. I have since come to view this as the first stage of a grieving process about losing the “goodness” of being white, as my family gained and processed our awareness of white privilege.

You probably know about the stages of grief: first we deny, then we get angry, then we bargain, then we get depressed, then we accept. As a culture, since the end of the Second World War (in which my father served), I think we have come through denial, anger, and bargaining – most in our country are in one or another of those stages – and the leading edge of our cultural progress (the critical mass of leading opinion) now dwells in the realms of depression and acceptance. What is being called “white fragility” in the academy might better be viewed as a strategy to avoid depression. What is being called “woke” among activists is a way of naming acceptance.

What we saw in Charlottesville and see daily at the White House is not by any means white fragility. There we see the forms of denial and anger that resist even bargaining, let alone depression or acceptance. The popularity with that resistant minority of a “deal maker” who will undo all the “bad deals” can hardly be a coincidence.

When we focus on institutional or systemic oppression, we are talking about creating a supportive environment for all of us to move through the stages of grieving the loss of “American greatness” that is involved in our honest acceptance of the oppression and injustice that kind of “greatness” depended upon. There have long been two kinds of narratives competing to define “American greatness”: narratives in which individuals compete to succeed, and narratives in which communities cooperate to succeed. There is the hardy self-made entrepreneur seeking security through private wealth, and there are the trusting concerned neighbors seeking security through collective commitment. What did the entrepreneur have to do to get rich? How wide did the community draw its circle?

Individuals have been selfless and generous. Communities have extended their support more inclusively. And as they have, they have taken these achievements as tokens of identity, of “goodness” if not “greatness.” That’s what we do. There are such tokens right here in our church. The window behind me celebrates two members of this church who lived about 100 years ago: Jean and Kate Gordon. The Gordon sisters worked for what we now accept as great advances in our culture and society, equal rights for women and fair labor practices. They supported women’s education and work opportunities, and opposed child labor and other labor abuses. They also believed in the science of eugenics. When we acknowledge that fact, we might find ourselves hovering in the stages of bargaining or depression or acceptance of our own community’s identity, coming to terms with the inevitable imperfection of human “goodness.” Yes, the Gordons were eugenicists, but they were clean. As clean as we are, anyway.

There are other examples. The fact that our founding minister, the Rev. Theodore Clapp, preached a famous defense of slavery and owned a slave whom he made work in the church. There are the Schweitzer enamels, artwork by Pauli D’Orlando that hang in our library, and depict Albert Schweitzer using what we now recognize as the stereotype of a white savior rescuing Africans from barbarism. Upon a day, this stereotype was understood as a depiction of neighborly aid, charity, and “doing good.” Some of us remember Albert D’Orlando, and perhaps some of us knew Pauli, his first wife. Whether or not we knew her personally, she’s part of the family. It’s hard to think of her beautiful artwork as saying, “And Schweitzer was clean.”

So what are we to do?

Every so often a pane of stained glass cracks or breaks under the stress the window bears trying to retain its shape. The weight of liquid glass on soft lead causes the windows to sag and sink with time. The leading buckles. The glass cracks. And the time comes when the whole window needs to be taken out, taken apart, and rebuilt with new lead and some new glass. It’s a big project. It takes time. It’s costly. But it’s the only way the window has integrity and can stand again without sagging.

In medieval times it was believed that the stained glass filtered out all but divine light. During the Enlightenment – the seed time of Unitarian and Universalist faith in our country – clear windows came in vogue in churches. More light, more light! More recently we have returned to a desire for color and symbols. Our collective, cultural lenses for viewing the world are like that. When the window starts to buckle, we can choose the color and denseness and pattern of the replacement glass. We can take time for discernment, reflection, deeper analysis and understanding. We can move toward new patterns: interrupt our routines, form different habits, discern new patterns, and reorganize our thoughts.

It’s not easy. But it is faithful.

May we take the time for discernment, reflection, deeper analysis, and deeper understanding – of our own and of our collective patterns. May we move closer to patterns, routines, habits, and commitments that help us resist and undo the oppressions and injustices still encoded in our institutions and social systems. May we thus faithfully live in closer accord with love and justice. So may it be. Amen.