Posts Tagged democracy

Go Vote!

“We covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
Fifth Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association

"I Voted" sticker with flaming chalice pinThe congregation I serve makes its major decisions by voting.  As a church belonging to one of the faiths descended from the early American congregationalists, we elect our own officers, we set our own budget and we vote to call our own ministers.  One of the primary benefits of membership in the congregation, in fact, is the right to vote on such matters, though we do not exclude sympathetic non-members from discussing the issues, too.  But it is a unique responsibility of membership to vote, to contribute in this and other ways to the collective wisdom of our decision-making.

We trace this tradition of congregational self-determination back almost four hundred years.  Indeed, with the rejection of religious hierarchy — rejecting both the king of England as the head of the church and the bishops as its officers — more than a hundred years before the United States declared their independence, the congregationalists were trying out democracy long before the country as a whole embarked on its similarly bold endeavor.  Liberty was the watchword in both cases, but for the churches it was specifically the freedom of mutual love.

After all, there is more to democracy than simply voting.  Being engaged participants, whether as members or as citizens, is essential.  And simply voting on an issue according to majority rule needs to be accompanied by a commitment on everybody’s part to stay in relationship, or else risk succumbing to divisiveness.  It is a fact of life that there will always be differences of opinion, so the real question is not which opinion is more popular, but how to live and work together before and after the vote.  The right to participate in shared decision-making is inseparable from shared responsibility for the health of the community, whether that community is one congregation or a whole country.

This makes efforts to rig elections all the more distressing.  I’m not talking about so-called voter fraud, which like other boogie men doesn’t actually exist.  Apply some reasonable common sense to the idea of repeated visits to a polling station while pretending to be a different person each time and it is clear that such a scheme would have little impact but require lots of effort and risk.  On the other hand, redrawing district lines to segregate certain voters or passing laws to prevent certain people from being able to vote at all are clearly ways to skew elections that, for all that they have the appearance of legality, are only sophisticated forms of cheating.  And since they inevitably target marginalized individuals — including women, people of color and poor people — they are also unjust and immoral.

We are already saturated with coverage of the various presidential campaigns in anticipation of next year’s elections, but this year’s elections — today’s elections, in fact — are just as important.  Candidates for national office often begin at the local or state level, working their way up as their political careers gain momentum.  Ensuring that we have capable officials who truly represent the will of the people, rather than special interests with deep pockets, begins — and is most critical — in so-called off-year elections.

For all those people who can’t vote or are prevented from voting, each of us who can do so should embrace with joy and gratitude the right and the responsibility to vote.  The purpose of an election is indeed to pick a winner, but when participation is low, whether due to voter apathy or deliberate disenfranchisement, then we all lose.

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From Selma to Raleigh

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 2nd 2014.)

On March 8th 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to religious leaders around the country.  That telegram read as follows:

In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Selma, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all America.  No American is without responsibility.  The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden.  I call therefore on clergy of all faiths to join me in Selma.

One hundred and thirty one Unitarian Universalist ministers answered that call, as well as twice that number of UU laypeople.  Joining about two thousand African American laypeople, many of them women and children, there were, in all, some four hundred and fifty religious leaders in that second march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 9th 1965.  In other words, nearly a nearly a third of the clergy who were there were Unitarian Universalists.  In fact one out of every five UU ministers answered Dr. King’s call to Selma, and in the days that followed more joined them.  The UUA’s President and Board of Trustees even adjourned their scheduled meeting, flew from Boston to Alabama, and reconvened in Selma.  As Victor Carpenter, who was serving as minister to the Unitarian Church of Cape Town at the time, summarized it:

These ministers had been called to perform a profound religious witness. It filled them with purpose and hope as well as fear and uncertainty. They were marching with America’s greatest civil rights leader of the twentieth century in a struggle against an unambiguously evil system of racial hate. Their lives were on the line. For many it was the most thrilling and personally ennobling time in all their years.

In just about every account of Unitarian Universalist history, you’ll find that the response of UUs to Dr. King’s call to Selma has consistently been a huge point of denominational pride.  “We were there,” we tell ourselves.  “When it mattered most, we showed up.”

It is not, of course, a story without tragedy.  And it’s embedded in a considerably larger story as well, a story that all Americans would do well to know better.

Records show that in 1961, Dallas County, Alabama was home to some 15,000 African Americans, representing more than half of the county’s population, many of them living in the county seat of Selma.  Of those 15,000, however, only 130 were registered to vote.  In other words, less than 1% of African Americans in Dallas County could vote, and that wasn’t unusual for Alabama and other parts of the South.  Efforts to help more African Americans register were frequently blocked by local and state officials, by a white supremacist organization called the Citizens’ Council of America, and by the Ku Klux Klan.

That blocking manifested in ways that included literacy tests, economic pressure and outright violence.  Organizers with the Dallas County Voters League were beaten.  African American school teachers who tried to register to vote were fired by the all-white school board.  Local ordinances were passed that made it illegal for civil rights groups to meet even to talk about voter registration.  President Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 might as well have happened in another country for all that it made a difference in Selma.

Then the Dallas County Voters League asked for help from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which had been leading successful campaigns of boycotts and non-violent protests across the South.  The Selma Voting Rights Movement was launched on January 2nd 1965, when Dr. King and others defied the anti-meeting ordinance at Brown Chapel.  Along with activists from the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, they organized protests and voter registration drives there and in other counties.

On February 18th, one such protest took place in Marion.  Alabama State Troopers had been ordered to target the organizer, and many of the protesters fled when the troopers rushed them.  Jimmie Lee Jackson tried to hide, with his mother, in a nearby café, but a trooper followed them and shot Jackson.  He was twenty-six years old and the only wage-earner in his household.  He died eight days later from an infection.

The leaders of the Selma Voting Rights Movement called for a march to Montgomery to demand answers from Governor George Wallace.  With so much pain and anger, the march was intended to provide a non-violent focus, something that Dr. King supported.  The governor, on the other hand, called the march “a threat to public safety” and promised to do whatever he could to prevent it.

On March 7th, some five or six hundred protesters set out from Selma, led by John Lewis of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and the Rev. Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  When they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they found Alabama State Troopers waiting for them, blocking the bridge.  The troopers’ ranks were even supplemented with conscripts, thanks to the sheriff’s order for all while adult males in Dallas County to be deputized that morning.  The protesters were told to disband, but when Lewis and Williams went forward to talk to the commanding officer, the troopers attacked, knocking protesters to the ground, beating them, firing tear gas at them, even charging them on horseback.  Seventeen protesters were hospitalized, though many more were injured, and television coverage sparked national outrage over what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”.

That was when Dr. King sent out his telegram, organizing a second march that would go at least as far as the bridge, for a time of prayer on the bridge itself, given a new court order prohibiting a march all the way to Montgomery.  This time there were about two and a half thousand protesters.

On the evening of March 9th, however, three of the Unitarian Universalist ministers who had gone to Selma — Orloff Miller, Clark Olsen and James Reeb — were attacked outside by white segregationists.  Reeb was hospitalized after being struck on the back of the head and he died two days later.  On March 15th, Dr. King gave the address at Reeb’s memorial service, which was held in Brown Chapel, and UUA President Dana Greeley offered the prayer.  And with protests outside the White House and in cities across the country, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Act.

There were, of course, other victims.  Viola Liuzzo was a UU layperson from Michigan, who was killed by Klansmen as she was driving to Montgomery to pick up protesters participating in the third march from Selma.  And Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire, was killed by a deputy sheriff after a week in jail for participating in a protest.  And when the deaths of the white activists gained more attention than had that of Jimmie Lee Jackson, well, that drew understandable complaints.  As a 2001 UU World article about the dedication of a new memorial to Jackson, Reeb and Liuzzo at UUA headquarters put it:

Many African Americans noted bitterly at the time that Jackson’s death did not generate a sympathy call from the President of the United States, but that Reeb’s death did.  The President himself announced the arrest of four Ku Klux Klansmen charged with shooting Viola Liuzzo as she drove back toward Montgomery to pick up more weary marchers, but no one was arrested for the gunshot that killed Jackson.

It wasn’t until 2007, in fact, that the Alabama State Trooper who had shot Jackson forty-two years earlier was charged with murder; he pled guilty to manslaughter in 2010 and was sentenced to six months in prison.  Back in the 1960s, at least, the UUA had used some of the money donated in memory of James Reeb to buy a house and establish a fund to help support Jackson’s family.

I relate this decidedly unhappy history for a few reasons.

First, it hasn’t been even fifty years since these events took place.  Some of the people who took part in them are still alive, from John Lewis, who now represents Georgia’s fifth district in Congress, to Clark Olsen, who a few years ago I heard address the UU Ministers Association on the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination.  These events are very much a part of who they are.

Second, we should be proud of how Unitarian Universalism responded to Dr. King’s call.  Our version of a denomination had, after all, only just come into existence with the 1961 consolidation of the Universalists and the Unitarians.  Moreover, as Victor Carpenter and others would have us always acknowledge and remember, the white UUs who went to Selma acted at the direction of the Selma Voting Rights Movement and its African American leadership, something that represents what was, for the times, a remarkable suppression of those UUs’ own white privilege.

Third, knowing this history gives us more than enough reason to be thoroughly outraged that the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act last year.  As if it wasn’t bad enough that it took forty-five years to convict Jimmie Lee Jackson’s killer, it’s an insult to his memory and to James Reeb’s memory and to all those who put their lives on the line to ensure that everyone could have access to the most basic tool of citizenship and democracy.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Attorney General Holder gives new depth to the word “stupid”.  I could use a few other words that aren’t appropriate for a Sunday morning, too.  Objecting to the part of the Voting Rights Act that determined which states and counties had to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department to change their voting laws, Chief Justice John Roberts summarized the court’s majority opinion as “things have changed”.  You know, we have a black President, and racism has magically gone away.  Yeah, right.

Now Justice Roberts did try to explain how “things have changed”, claiming that the country could no longer be divided into states and counties that embrace Jim Crow and those that don’t, and that maintaining such a division on the basis of history was unreasonable.

Well, he ignored the fact that jurisdictions can prove to a court that they meet certain criteria for getting themselves off the list needing Justice Department pre-clearance, just as counties in Virginia have done.  He also ignored the fact that Shelby County was incapable of meeting those “bail out” criteria because it continued to try to disenfranchise African Americans.  And as Justice Kagan put it, “You’re objecting to the formula [used to determine coverage by the Voting Rights Act], but under any formula Congress could devise, it would capture Alabama.

Well, now we have “things have changed” as a legal precedent.  Only in most places, they haven’t changed much in fifty years.  As Justice Ginsburg noted in her dissenting opinion, “Jurisdictions covered by the pre-clearance requirement continued to submit, in large numbers, proposed changes to voting laws that the Attorney General declined to approve, auguring that barriers to minority voting would quickly resurface were the pre-clearance remedy eliminated.”  And yes, she was right.  Within hours — not days; hours — of the Supreme Court decision, officials in Texas and Mississippi — both states subject to pre-clearance — announced that they would begin enforcing voter identification laws that the Justice Department had rejected as discriminatory.

The champion of disenfranchisement, however, is North Carolina.  One month to the day after Shelby County v. Holder was decided, North Carolina passed a whole package of changes to voting laws, including just about everything that’s been tried to suppress voting, from rejecting student identification to shortening polling hours, from restricting provisional voting to making illegal paid voter registration drives.  Such changes are claimed to be necessary to combat voter fraud, where somebody shows up at a polling station claiming to be someone else, but no evidence of such in-person voter fraud has ever been found.

It’s not about any such thing as combating voter fraud, of course.  That’s just how it’s being packaged and sold in the hopes that the public will let it slide.  Rather, it’s about voter suppression, particularly suppression of the voting rights of African Americans, women, students, the disabled and the poor.  The sad thing is that apparently it doesn’t take much to get someone pushing these changes to voting laws to admit that.  North Carolina elections official Don Yelton was even fired after bragging about voter suppression tactics on The Daily Show last Fall.  During the middle of the interview, Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi actually interrupted one of Yelton’s racially offensive tirades to ask, “You know we can hear what you’re saying, don’t you?”

In response to the emergence of what is being called the New Jim Crow, people began organizing, just as they did fifty years ago.  In North Carolina, their efforts coalesced in the Moral Mondays Movement, led by the Rev. William Barber II, President of the North Carolina NAACP.  Nine Unitarian Universalist ministers serving congregations and communities in North Carolina even made the commitment to engage in civil disobedience as part of the Movement, resulting in their arrest.  And on December 18th, they sent out this message:

Here in North Carolina, we have known no vacation from the struggle for voting rights.  And now, we find ourselves in the midst of an ugly battle for democracy.

As ministers and citizens of North Carolina, we’ve felt compelled to respond to this threat.  We have borne witness to a movement across our state that is resisting the immoral and undemocratic actions of our legislature and governor.  With many from the congregations we serve we’ve taken part in Moral Mondays[. …]

We went because we knew that to suppress the vote is to suppress the spirit of a person.  We knew that any attempt to erode our democracy is rooted in a desperate history of paralyzing, painful politics that would serve none of us.  We knew that our own history, and the sacrifices made by those before, called us to this struggle.  And we knew that democracy is not simply a type of governance, but is a spiritual value. […]

We have continued to show up in Raleigh and across North Carolina.  We are committed to resist laws that aim to suppress the voice of the people by reducing early voting, requiring unnecessary government-issued identification (in a state with no evidence of voter fraud) and ensuring that our students are penalized for voting on campus.  It’s unconscionable.  It’s immoral.  It’s dangerous.

We know North Carolina is being viewed as a test state to unleash these regressive chains of injustice across the country.

That is why […] we ask for you to join us in Raleigh on Saturday, February 8th, when the NAACP will host the ‘Mass Moral March on Raleigh’ as part of the Historic Thousands on Jones Street. The NAACP has a vision that this will be the most massive moral rally in the South since Selma.  And we need it to be.  We write to you to ask you urgently to come join us […] as we respond to the spiritual call to engage in the struggle.

When I read this, back in December, I knew that I had to go.  Knowing what I do of our history, I knew that I had to go.  The letter from the North Carolina ministers was drawing of course, upon the legacy of Dr. King’s telegram.  Their letter was rather longer, of course, given that the cost of a telegram was per word whereas an e-mail costs the same regardless of length or content, at least until Verizon gets its way.  But the spirit was the same, and they knew that when they wrote it, and it’s had the effect they intended by it.

Perhaps more importantly, I’m not going alone.  Around twenty of us from the Fellowship are going, and I think that includes some children.  That’s a fabulous response from a small congregation like ours.  And we’ll be in Raleigh with several hundred of our fellow Unitarian Universalists and several thousand of our fellow citizens on Saturday morning, when we march from Shaw University to the North Carolina State Capitol.

Thankfully some things really have changed, though that probably has more to do with cell ‘phone cameras and social media than it does with legislation or judicial opinion.  We won’t be confronted by armed state troopers with orders to attack us with tear gas or charge us on horseback.  So far as I know there aren’t any plans for anyone to engage in civil disobedience, either.  The worst hazard we face, in fact, is the rain that’s currently forecast for Saturday.

Not everyone can go, of course.  Not everyone wants to go.  And that’s okay.  But whether we’re going or not, I hope we all realize that we are at a turning point in history, just as we were fifty years ago.  And by “we” I mean not only the United States as a nation but Unitarian Universalism as a faith, too.

In one of his final sermons, which was given at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington DC, James Reeb said that “We are going to have to really take upon ourselves a continuing and disciplined effort with no real hope that in our lifetime we are going to be able to take a vacation from the struggle for justice.”  Well, that’s just as true today as it was fifty years ago.  And it’s part of our heritage, part of the living tradition that we begin to embrace when we join a congregation like this one.  We may not do it perfectly.  We have made mistakes — as a congregation, as a denomination — and I can guarantee that there will be mistakes in our future.  But by taking part in public witness and advocacy, or by supporting and affirming those who do, simply by being here in this imperfect microcosm of the Beloved Community that we hope to realize, we are all of us lending the weight of our souls to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

So may it be.

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To Be Good Stewards of Our Own Power

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
– Our Fifth Principle

I spent two of January’s Tuesdays in Richmond, the first for the Virginia Interfaith Center’s Day for All People and the second for Equality Virginia’s Day of Action.  Both were opportunities to learn about the legislative process and the bills before the Virginia General Assembly and then to meet with our elected representatives or their legislative aides to share with them our opinions of those bills and other views on what matters to us.

Now most of us experience some anxiety or at least nervousness when it comes to approaching those who make the laws that govern our lives.  I’d…

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How to Disagree

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 18th 2013.)

People’s Parable: “The Argument Clinic” by Monty Python

Aria: “Let the Goodness In” by Tret Fure

Sermon: “How to Disagree”

I’d like to begin my sermon with a very quick show of hands.  Please raise your hand if you’ve ever disagreed with somebody else.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us that we have all experienced disagreements in our lives.  Many of them were mild differences of opinion that didn’t really matter.  Some of them led to arguments that hurt feelings and changed relationships, at least for a while.  And a few of them led to greater conflicts that — in the absence of any other way forward — ended relationships.

I’ve been thinking about the subject of “how to disagree” for a while now.  It’s relevant to all of our personal lives, of course, but it’s particularly relevant in the context of a religious community such as ours that makes the breathtakingly stunning — and thoroughly counter-cultural — claim that in spite of differences in belief and differences in opinion we can nonetheless be in community with one another.  After all, we don’t have to pay for a session at an argument clinic to find somebody who’s going to disagree with us on something.  When it does happen, though, it’d be nice to think there was something constructive we could do instead of sinking to the lowest level of flinging “Yes, it is.” and “No, it isn’t.” back and forth, even though that’s apparently the approach to national governance that Congress thinks is best.

We can, of course, try to avoid disagreement altogether, and it’s actually not too hard to do that these days.  After all, whatever your position on almost any issue, you can choose to tune into the radio and television stations that seem to endorse similar positions.  And you can do that even more effectively on-line, frequenting those websites and blogs and following those people on Facebook and Twitter whose ideas and values match your own.

It’s natural, of course, to be most comfortable around people with worldviews and opinions that are similar to our own, but it’s not healthy — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually — to be entirely surrounded by people who agree with us.  It’s to live in a fantasyland that drifts further and further away from reality, floating off in an ideological bubble that will inevitably burst with severe if not devastating consequences for those inside it.  It feels good to be safe and secure in that bubble, right up until the moment when reality intrudes and we realize that our safety and security were only illusions.  No matter how good it feels to be Emperor, none of us wants to realize, in the end, that we actually have no clothes.

So I’m convinced that, given our Unitarian Universalist declaration of our commitments to diversity and pluralism, we have an obligation to do better ourselves, and to take what we learn here and help the wider world do better, too.  After all, knowing how to disagree is essential for the healthy functioning of a congregation.  Knowing how to disagree means that we understand that the democratic process does not mean that we’ll agree all the time but rather hinges on our willingness to remain in loving covenant no matter our disagreements.  Those holding minority opinions have the right to be heard expressing those opinions, for example, but once a decision has been made, they also have the right to be just as much valued members of the community as they were before.

And that’s important not only for the health of the people within these walls, but for how we relate to — and hope to make a difference in — the world beyond our walls.  As a warning against the temptations of trivial disagreements, for instance, Unitarian Universalist minister Dick Gilbert relates the traditional anecdote that “while [the] revolution was raging in St. Petersburg in 1917, a convocation of the Russian Orthodox Church was in session a few blocks away, engaged in bitter debate over what color vestments their priests should wear.”  That’s a pretty egregious example, but there are a few similar stories from Unitarian Universalist history, too.

So I’ve collected a few guidelines for how to disagree.  Just to be clear, I’m not talking about social justice issues, where it’s definitely not acceptable to merely agree to disagree with people promoting homophobia or restrictions on women’s reproductive rights or environmental exploitation.  Rather, I’m talking about the majority of disagreements that most of us encounter here or at home or at work as we go about our daily lives.  And my emphasis will be on staying in relationship with one another in spite of our differences.

Now my default position here comes from the claim that, as human beings, our identities are defined by our relationships.  I don’t just mean our ‘intimate’ relationships, of course, or family relationships, but also varying degrees of friendship, from the people with whom we work and serve and volunteer to the people we encounter at the supermarket or the gas station or the airport.  Thanks to the Universalist side of our tradition, I take as an article of faith that it is possible to be in ‘right’ relationship with anyone.  But there does appear to be an exception, and, since I continually try to come to terms with the fact that I am limited and mortal, I’ve had to accept that that’s okay.

Here’s why there’s an exception — or perhaps it’d be better to call it an escape clause.

Researchers at Baruch College in New York recently published a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships that showed that “not only is ignoring obnoxious people more effective at silencing them than actually speaking to them or engaging them in discussion, it’s healthier and less mentally draining on you as well.”  As one reporter titled her article about the research, “Ostracism worthwhile when dealing with jerks”.  To quickly summarize the results, the participants in the study were each asked to either interact with or ignore another person for a few minutes and then perform a task requiring mental effort.  If the other person was likeable and engaging, the participants who interacted did better at the task.  But if the other person was rude and offensive, the participants who used the silent treatment did better.

Now this study really just quantifies something we already knew: being around good people makes us better, while being around jerks makes us worse.  Still, it has some implications for us.  First, yes, removing ourselves from interactions with obnoxious people is a tool of self-preservation.  Second, we need to be aware of when we’re becoming rude and offensive ourselves, or we’ll deserve the silent treatment, too.  But third, and this is where Universalist faith re-asserts itself in the face of our human limits and frailties, we must leave space for the person who used to be obnoxious.  It may not be possible to always be in right relationship, but we can remain open to trying, to the possibility of being in right relationship.  After all, sometimes we’re the ones being jerks, and we should always be able to hope that, once we snap out of it and shape up, there’ll be a place for us in community again.

I know there’ve been plenty of times in my life when I’ve been the rude and offensive person.  Looking back I usually realize it was because I was under stress or grieving or, less acceptably, because I was tired or hungry.  In most cases I was able to apologize afterwards and right relationship was restored.  Recognizing my own failings, I try to be more understanding when it’s the other person who seems obnoxious, silently offering them compassion for whatever trials they might be encountering in their own life.  It might not improve their behavior toward me, but it helps prevent the deterioration of my behavior toward them.  As author — and creator of Peter Pan — J. M. Barrie put it, “Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own.”

Another piece of wise advice comes to us from psychologist, author and dating coach Mark Mason.  At the top of his list of “Six Toxic Relationship Habits Most People Think Are Normal” is keeping a scorecard of the other person’s past mistakes for the sole purpose of dredging them up as ammunition in the current disagreement.  (Related to that is the use of words like “always” and “never” to make sweeping generalizations about the other person’s misbehavior.)  The scorecard is toxic because each person ends up spending more time reopening old wounds to prove that they are less wrong than in finding the right answer to the current situation.  Rather, says Mason, unless there’s clearly some recurring problem, each issue should be dealt with on its own terms.

While it’s important to avoid making disagreements personal, such as in terms of the other person’s past and unrelated actions, sometimes it’s important to acknowledge, at least to yourself, that a disagreement is personal, at least in that it really has nothing to do with what the disagreement is supposedly about.  You’ve heard — or at least heard of — the cliché, usually in the context of break-ups, “It’s not you; it’s me.”  Well, no, sometimes it really is them.  It’s not helpful to point that out, of course.  But when another person has an unexpectedly strong disagreement or a difference of opinion that just seems to come out of nowhere or a piece of what seems like overly critical feedback, it may simply be best to listen to them, to reassure them that you’ve heard what they had to say, and to move on.  If it helps, you can say to yourself the mantra that I’ve heard Unitarian Universalist minister and Mountain Desert District Executive Nancy Bowen claim as an alternative meaning of “WTF”: Wasn’t that fascinating!

Another piece of wisdom I gained from Nancy is the importance of asking if the object of the disagreement is worth it.  Is your goal in disagreeing worth what it will cost?  Or in Nancy’s words, “Is this a ditch I’m willing to die in?”  And that’s a great question because it forces you to actually identify your goal, to figure out what you’re trying to achieve by disagreeing.

After all, when my wife and I are at the supermarket and talking about buying some ice-cream, we may disagree about what flavor to buy.  But if I want chocolate and she wants strawberry, it’s not a relationship disaster.  Perhaps there’s a “buy one, get one free” deal that would let us each get our preferred flavor without spending a lot.  Or perhaps we could just make do with Neapolitan.  There doesn’t have to be a winner-take-all argument over which flavor of ice-cream is better, something that is entirely subjective anyway, and the only purpose of our disagreeing is to express personal preferences that can readily be satisfied.

Sometimes when we stop and think about why we’re disagreeing, we realize it’s really about not much more than, well, which flavor of ice-cream we prefer.  About ten years ago, I was in an on-going argument with my boss — who was the professor of the research group I was in — about the experiments I was doing.  I was having the hardest time showing him that I was actually getting the results he was expecting, and it was stressing me out to the point that I developed my first bout of sinusitis and would break out into uncontrollable coughing whenever I saw him coming.  After redoing the experiments, and rebuilding the equipment, again and again, for weeks and then months, I finally realized that it came down to the colors I was using to plot my data.  He preferred a different color scale and he couldn’t see what I saw in the one I usually used.  Well, that was easy to resolve.  What’s more, once I’d used his preferred colors to show him my results, he was fine with me publishing them using my preferred colors.

Knowing what it is we’re trying to achieve — and being honest about it with ourselves — makes all the difference.  Judith Martin, who is better known as Miss Manners, recently answered a letter from someone who was trying to get to a train but was stuck on the stairs behind someone who, as it turned out, was texting.  It was raining and it was rush hour, so the traveler asked if the texter would mind finishing at the bottom of the stairs.  Now the texter was holding up a lot of people who were also getting wet, so the traveler was surprised when the texter got angry and responded rudely.  Miss Manners answered the letter by first taking the traveler to task for wrapping the incident in selfless virtue.  After all, the problem for the traveler wasn’t really that someone else was texting, perhaps even for very important reasons, or that other people were getting wet.  The problem for the traveler was that the traveler couldn’t get past.  Being honest about that, Miss Manners pointed out, would have led to the traveler simply saying something like “I’m sorry, but can I get by?” rather than committing the first “rudeness” of the situation by criticizing the texter’s actions.  (This is actually one of the central lessons of Non-Violent or Compassionate Communication, something that two UUFP members are teaching us about this Fall.)

So, to recap: know your purpose in disagreeing; recognize when it’s not about you; avoid making disagreements personal; deal with each issue on its own terms; assume the other person means as at least as well as you do; walk away from obnoxious behavior, but allow for that behavior to change; and, beware the temptations of the trivial, because you might miss the revolution.

These are, of course, guidelines, not rules.  Human relationships being what they are, there are no simple, technical solutions.  And whatever anybody says, it’s always easier said than done.  All of us — you; me; even, I’d be prepared to bet, Miss Manners — have to work at it.  But it’s worth it, because here’s the thing about disagreement: it’s going to happen.  For a congregation or any other community to be healthy does not mean that there are no disagreements.  In fact, nearly the opposite is true: if there are never any disagreements, then that’s reflective of decadence, apathy and lack of purpose, which indicates only a worthless form of health.  Rather, a community that is dynamic, vibrant and mission-centered will encounter disagreements amongst reasonable, well-meaning and honest people, and the health of that community is measured by how well those disagreements are held, in love, by the community as a whole.

Two hundred years ago, this was part of the message of the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou.  Riding on horseback between churches to preach the good news of universal salvation, Ballou drew out the implications of his theology for what it means for how we treat one another in life.  “If we agree in love,” he said, “there is no disagreement that can do us any injury.”  It’s love, and what we love, that holds together a community, a congregation, a church, love that transcends differences of belief and differences of opinion, love that holds us together no matter our disagreements over the color of our vestments or our choices of vocabulary.  But Ballou went on: “if we do not [agree in love], no other agreement can do us any good.”  In other words, love matters most and everything else, if it is not in service to love, is for naught.

So here’s my final guideline for how to disagree.  Ask yourself what you love, and what the person with whom you are disagreeing loves.  Look at how that love holds you, both of you, in the space of disagreement.  Think about what you have in common, the values you share, and the goals to which you are working together.  Remember that no matter what, for this brief moment in time, might appear to be keeping you apart, you are held in love.

So may it be.

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Social Change, with Love

Remember, remember the fifth of November:
Gunpowder, treason and plot!

— British nursery rhyme

One Autumn night in 1605, agents of King James I searched the cellars underneath Parliament and discovered three-dozen barrels of gunpowder guarded by a man armed with a slow-burning fuse.  A few days earlier, Lord Monteagle had been warned of a plot to blow up the House of Lords at the Opening of Parliament, thereby killing the Protestant king so that he could be replaced by a Catholic monarch.  The plot was the work of a group of English Catholics whose faith was repressed by the king’s policies, and the man with the fuse had been recruited after spending years abroad fighting with the Spaniards against the Dutch.  Under interrogation he admitted that his assignment had been to blow up the House of Lords, and under torture he revealed the names of his fellow plotters, as well as his own: Guy Fawkes.  Found guilty of high treason and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered, Fawkes jumped from the gallows in order to break his own neck and so avoid the excruciation of evisceration and dismemberment while still alive.

Guy Fawkes Night is observed in today’s Britain as a largely family-oriented occasion featuring bonfires, food and firework displays.  Originating as a mandated celebration that the king survived an attempted assassination, it has thankfully grown beyond its former anti-Catholic sentiment, and represents a uniquely British holiday on a par with the American Hallowe’en.  I remember when I was growing up in England that, in the weeks before Bonfire Night, children would make figures out of newspapers and old clothes and ask people for “a penny for the Guy” to pay for firewood, supposedly, the idea being that such figures would be burnt on November 5th in memory of Fawkes’ fate.

As we approach election day this week, we can be thankful that civic life in the United States proceeds considerably more peaceably than it did in seventeenth century Great Britain.  Living in a constitutional federal republic with democratically elected leaders, governance is ultimately the responsibility of the people themselves, rather than a monarch or a class of oligarchs claiming a special mandate, divine or otherwise.  Moreover, and essential to the functioning of democracy, the people are constitutionally guaranteed the rights of freedom of religion, of speech, of the press and of assembly, all of which are clearly alive and well given the popular movements that are challenging today’s political and financial orthodoxy.

It’s interesting to compare Congregationalism (as a form of church governance) and Federalism (as a form of national governance) since, in the United States at least, they evolved in parallel.  Unitarian Universalist congregations, for example, elect their own leaders (including ministers), given their covenant to affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”.  As such we enjoy many and varied discussions about how individuals and groups of individuals can balance freedom and responsibility, how we might seek peace and do justice, and how we are called to use our blessings in service to the greater good.  Disagreements are, of course, inevitable, but we try to remember one ingredient that unfortunately seems all too often missing from society’s political discourse: love.  For, in the words of the legendary Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou: “If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.”

Love was certainly missing in the lives (and death) of Guy Fawkes and the Court of King James, but it need not be missing in our public lives, too.  As you go to the polls this week, and as you prepare to vote in next year’s elections, will you do so with love?  Casting aside fear, forsaking anger and rejecting cynicism, will you enjoy the privileges of citizenship with love for those with whom you disagree?  Avoiding self-serving pity, will you choose compassion, literally “suffering with” the poor, the hungry and the dispossessed?  When you vote, will you do so as if “the least of these” were right there in the voting booth with you?

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