Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Season of Malcontents

Are you as moral as you think you are?  Let me offer a test to help you answer this question. This test only has one question, but it's a very important one.  By

giving an honest answer, you will discover where you stand morally.  The test features an unlikely, completely fictional situation in which you will have to make a decision. Only you will know the results, so remember that your answer needs to be honest.

You are in Florida, Miami to be specific. There is chaos all around you caused by a hurricane with severe flooding. This is a flood of biblical proportions. You are a photojournalist working for a major newspaper, and you're caught in the middle of this epic disaster. The situation is nearly hopeless. You're trying to shoot career-making photos. There are houses and people swirling around you, some disappearing under the water.

Suddenly you see a man in the water. He is fighting for his life, trying not to be taken down with the debris. You move closer. Somehow the man looks familiar. You suddenly realize who it is. It's Donald Trump! At the same time you notice that the raging waters are about to take him under forever.

You can save the life of Donald Trump or you can shoot a dramatic Pulitzer Prize winning photo, documenting the death of one of the world's most powerful Republican men hell bent on the destruction of America.

Here's the question, and please give an honest answer. "Would you select high contrast color film, or would you go with the classic simplicity of black and white?"  

I’ll tell you another story. Hillary Clinton was addressing a group of American Indians in New York telling them all she did as senator and all she plans to do for them as President. At the end of the meeting the chief gave her a plaque with an honorary name, Walking Eagle. After she left someone asked the chief if there is any meaning to that name. He said "A walking Eagle is a bird that is so full of crap, it cannot fly."

Over the summer Claudia, our intern minister, and I discussed how we might prepare you for this season we are about to enter. I call it a “season of malcontents.” Now in Florida, if you are new here, you might not successfully be able to distinguish one season from the other. After living here awhile you’ll notice small changes like Floridians wearing parkas when it is 67 degrees or when the one place you’ll find snow is at the mall on a single December night.
There are changes in the light and the landscape if you pay attention. The season I’m talking about is the season of malcontents and it too brings changes. Politics by way of mudslinging, racism, bigotry, and absolute ridiculousness will be even greater over the next few months and we are at risk. We are at risk of becoming malcontents. That is, you will become increasingly dissatisfied, your anger will peak, your compassion will wane, and you will become increasingly oppositional.  

Our season of malcontents will reduce our spirits to a gruel so thin we will all surely starve. But, have no fear. I stand here today offering a remedy to neutralize the season. It’s a simple antidote and Unitarian Universalists call it our first principle. If you are unfamiliar or need a reminder, our first principle is the understanding that every person -- soon to be every being -- has inherent worth and dignity. It arises out of the Universalist influence on our movement, and reflects the Universalist belief in human goodness, historically, that all people are worthy of God’s love and all will ultimately be “saved” and reconciled with God. Our Universalist forebears (as well as the Unitarians) rejected the “debased” view of human nature espoused by Calvinists, believing that a good and just God created humans who were inherently good, as well. While acknowledging the human capacity for evil, Universalists challenged the faithful to find something of value in every human being and to believe that redemption was possible even for those who had wandered from living an “ideal” life.

Living as a Unitarian Universalist is hard work.  Living our seven principles, which are printed on the back of your order of service, is hard work. We don’t arrive here and handed what to believe, are told how to act, or given a list of bad behaviors and people. We arrive and are encouraged to go deeper in our personal beliefs and we are challenged to live, act, and respond according to our principles which are a guide to justice, equity, and compassion. It will be increasingly difficult to honor our first principle during this season of malcontents. We will resort to living out our shadow selves, the part of ourselves that we wish no one knew about. The angry self. The divisive self. The insensitive self. The uncharitable self. The unhinged self.
Our first principle says nothing about every person having worth and dignity as long as they agree with us. There is no fine print at the end of the principles. Within the foundation of Unitarian Universalism we are told we do not have to think alike to love alike. That is, we will love you because just by being born into humanity you have worth.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to hear this. Maybe I want to be my shadow self this season. Maybe I want to be a malcontent. Maybe I can’t turn all of the confusion, fear, and downright stupidity of this season into something that will honor my Unitarian Universalist beliefs and tradition.

One of our Unitarian Universalist theologians, James Luther Adams, once said, “If you want to know someone’s theology you need only watch what they do.” As Unitarian Universalists our faith calls us to higher ground, something greater, than being a malcontent. Let’s be honest, we can’t remove all malcontent from our lives. There is such a thing as being human. If we live this season of malcontents, as our shadow selves, we reject our tradition and show those who are watching what our faith isn’t about. We betray our commitment to healing the world. This first principle gets a lot of heat because it is the principle that is the most misunderstood. We respect the inherent worth and dignity of each person but not the behavior of each person.

Everyone has worth -- it may not be evident on the surface. There are extreme cases such as Hitler, for example, that stand outside of that belief. Many Unitarian Universalists feel that one presidential candidate, Donald Trump, is moving his way outside of the circle.  

I ask you, as a Unitarian Universalist, does Trump have worth? Does he have worth simply by being born into humanity? A complicated question if you think about it. You see, Unitarian Universalists believe that the person does have worth, but it is behavior that is deplorable. Unitarian Universalists don’t deny that people are capable of reprehensible behavior, even evil. And, certainly Hitler and others have demonstrated the limits of depraved thought and behavior we may be humanly capable of. Our discernment on this issue, as Unitarian Universalists, is around the person, not the behavior. We can affirm people’s inherent worth while condemning the choices, behavior, and actions of the individual.

Growing up my children would say, “I hate him.”  I taught them to say they hated the behavior and not the person. That's the difficult part. Most of us reject the ideals, the values, the rhetoric, the theology of that individual.

I don’t want to see him dead. I don’t want his wife, who didn’t choose to be thrust into the limelight, to be crucified, and I don’t want the only messages we receive and embrace to be hateful. If we live like that we are not Unitarian Universalists. We become part of the problem instead of the healing. Hate in your heart this season will exhaust your intellect and empty your spirit.

We don’t believe that all behavior is appropriate, dignified, or worthwhile. We do believe that every soul is worthy, capable of redemption, and possessing inherent dignity.  We believe that every person has worth, even when their behavior is unacceptable. We believe that it matters that you and I and others were born. Our challenge is honoring people’s dignity and worth while also demanding that they honor the worth and dignity of others. Our work is creating right relationships with one another where we are explicit about what behavior is appropriate and encouraged, and clear about what actions will result in censure from each other because it is disruptive, inappropriate, or disrespectful. My inherent worth and dignity is not more or less important than yours.

All the world’s religions agree as to what it means to be a good person. It means having integrity, to be honest, and above all to be compassionate towards other people. None of us are always good at all three all of the time and politicians are no different, but the candidate I want to focus on is Donald Trump who isn’t good at any of them, apparently ever. If you are like me, you are grateful to the Rio Olympics for breaking up the constant stories about Trump’s latest outrageous statement on your Facebook newsfeed. I can’t wait for this election to be over. I have no illusions that it will end hearing about or from him, but I do hope the world can return to having a life again. Cute videos of kittens will be a welcomed relief. But I do have concerns about what kind of life it will be.

I equate this election with 9/11. The world did not react well to those planes flying into the World Trade Center. From Osama Bin Laden’s sick perspective it was a complete success, not because of the horror of that day, but because of our reaction to it. Bush’s choice to respond by declaring a War on Terror instead of treating the act as the crime against humanity it was has led to two never-ending wars, more terrorism, ISIS, the death of countless innocents, a refugee crisis in Europe, a world willing to give up freedom for a false sense of security, distrust between ethnic groups, hatred of those who don’t worship the same as we do, and the rise of Donald Trump and the politics of hate.

Philosophers talk about a “moral atmosphere.” It is like the air we breathe, only it is the values and attitudes we breathe in that shape our behaviors and relationships. It is no less important to life than oxygen. It is strongly shaped by those we accept as leaders. A recent high profile example is the ousting of Roger Ailes at Fox News for sexual harassment. Apparently he was not only guilty of personal sexual misconduct, he created an atmosphere that made that behavior acceptable and prevalent for over twenty years within the organization. It works in a positive way as well. When the leader demonstrates integrity, honesty and compassion, the behaviors of those in the organization begin to reflect those values.

Donald Trump is polluting the moral atmosphere, not just in the U.S. It is a global climate change. The Boston Globe pointed out this week that there is a hardening of attitudes in America as reflected in our normalizing child poverty. Is this any different than Trump normalizing all Mexicans as criminals and rapists or all Muslims as terrorists? There was a time in our history when we would have been universally outraged that one third of our children live in poverty. In fact, in the moral atmosphere created by former leaders, it never happened. Donald Trump’s hateful, bullying, name-calling, violent rhetoric is not unique to him, but he has taken it to new levels to leverage our worst prejudices, fears and hatreds for political gain. It is language that shreds, not tears, the social fabric. A tear can be mended, shredding can’t be. The damage he is doing will not be undone by his much hoped for defeat.

Most of us likely grew up in a moral atmosphere that warned us to be careful of our speech: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary? Would you like it said of you? We probably didn’t know that our parents were paraphrasing people like the Hindu saint Sai Baba, who taught that we should ask ourselves four things before we speak: “Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true? Does it improve upon the silence? If the Donald remained silent for the rest of the campaign, his poll numbers would probably improve, but it is not going to happen as long as he has a Twitter account. So he is 0 for 4.

Meanness has become pervasive in our western culture. Being mean has become a form of entertainment to be laughed at. You only have to read the comments section on the internet following a story or opinion piece. Donald Trump is making that meanness legitimate. One teacher recently said, “We’ve seen Donald Trump act like a 12-year old and now 12-year olds are acting like Donald Trump telling their Muslim and Hispanic classmates that Trump will deport them.

But the most disturbing thing about Donald Trump is that he has become my spiritual guru. He is forcing me to examine my own values. Do I really believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Do I permit myself to footnote the exceptions?

John Donne is known best for being the renaissance poet who warned, “do not ask for whom the bell tolls,” but his day job was being a preacher. He once explained, “I preach to myself and allow others to listen.” I have often told people that of course I don’t practice what I preach, that’s why I’m preaching it. It is my way of holding myself to the standards and values I say I believe in. So today’s sermon is in that mode, and I invite you to listen to my confession if it seems relevant to you.

Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, once said, “When no one is acting like a human being, you must act like a human being.” In the increasingly polluted moral atmosphere in which we live and move and have our being, I feel less and less sure about how to do that. Donald Trump as my spiritual teacher pushes all my buttons to figure out how to act as Hillel demands. I may have no control over what Donald Trump does and says — I’m not sure even he does —but I can control what I do. Doing so cannot be put off. It is about our survival, no less so than is global climate change.

Educator and author Parker Palmer calls us to cultivate an understanding of the value of otherness. We grow the most in our lives, not by preaching to the choir but stepping outside of our tribes and realizing that “us and them” does not mean “us versus them.” Palmer says that this requires us to cultivate a supple heart. A supple heart is one that can bend, receive and give without brittleness. When we refuse to listen, when we demand that others change their way of thinking to our own, then that is a brittle heart.

We’re experiencing a political season unlike anything we’ve experienced in recent memory, and more seems to be at stake than ever before. I leave you with this: What can we, as people of faith, learn from this moment? What practices can guide us? What new insights can help us build the world we dream of, as we live in right relationship with our fellow human beings, and the planet itself?

May it be so.

Season of Malcontents, a sermon delivered by the Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Aug 28, 2016.

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