Faith in Democracy

preached for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert November 6, 2016


The reading was taken from the transcript of the episode of On Being. Krista Tippett interviewed poet Natasha Trethewey and interfaith activist Eboo Patel in a piece called “How to Live Beyond this Election.” I focused on the words of Eboo Patel in the excerpt used in worship. Here is a link to the entire interview.


Written in response to the assassination of Harvey Milk, the most famous openly gay official elected in the United States, Singing for our Lives – the true name of that song we just sang, is an American anthem that celebrates resistance, resilience, courage and kindness.
Anne Kronenberg, Milk’s last campaign manager, wrote of him: "What set Harvey apart from you or me was that he was a visionary. He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us."

A couple of weeks ago Melany Mack got up here and quoted me saying that “We have to imagine a different world in order to create a better one.” And that’s what Harvey Milk did. “He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then then he set about to create it, for real, for all of us.”

Harvey Milk had faith in our democratic system and he had the courage and the kindness to set about creating a better world. Faith is our theme this month. Courage and kindness is just what we need.

If you haven’t seen the 2015 Disney version of Cinderella, her mother advises on her death bed, to have courage and to be kind. And its sound advice.

I researched the origin of that line – ‘have courage and be kind.’ Was it in the original Grimm’s tale? To which I learned, but was not surprised, that the Grimm Brothers were not the originators of the Cinderella Story. The story has been around for hundreds of years before Disney animated it. Cinderella, in fact, belonged to the peasants. Thousands of Cinderella tales have been told around the fire, before television and radio, in places as diverse as ancient Egypt, China, Japan, France, and the wilds of Tennessee, at least according to an article I read by writer and editor, Erica Jarvis. I quote:

“Even armed with the knowledge that folk and fairy tales in their earlier forms are darker than the Westernized, Disney-fied versions we’ve grown up with, early versions of Cinderellas can be startling.

“In one of the oldest, Cinderella is a slave girl for sale in a region called Thrace, which envelops parts of modern Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece. Fragments of poetry indicate she may have been a real woman, named Rhodopis (“rosy cheeks”), who had been purchased by the poet’s brother. The story that this Thracian Cinderella was sought out by the emperor after an eagle dropped her golden sandal in his lap does not change the fact that she was trafficked for sex and companionship.

“In another shocking Cinderella tale, Cinderella lives with her mother and natural sisters in the woods. They are plunged into a terrible famine. Driven mad with hunger, Cinderella’s sisters decide to kill and eat their mother. Cinderella refuses to join in. Because of this, it is her mother’s bones that are her “magical helper,” providing her with the necessary finery to go to the ball.” End quote.

These versions add important context to the mantra “have courage and be kind,” though the latest Disney film version of Cinderella does a pretty good job of illustrating courage and kindness in the face of the all too familiar bullying and abuse. A little courage and kindness could have helped this national campaign for the presidency, I dare say.

Our theme this month is faith. And it takes real faith to:
* be kind when others are not,
* to have courage when surrounded by fear and terror.

This courage and kindness allows us
* To resist when justice demands, and
* to be resilient, to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.

One definition of faith is complete trust or confidence in someone or something. The secondary definition of faith has to do with creed and religion, but as ours is a non-creedal faith – and I submit Unitarian Universalism is a faith – I think it is the first definition worth examining: Complete trust and confidence in someone or something. When we say we are a “congregation at home in the world” I believe we are saying that we are a faithful people. We have faith in our ability to belong and participate in making this world a better place. We have faith in our ability to have courage and be kind, like Harvey Milk or our fictional [perhaps based on a real person] Cinderella.

“…The large frame question,” asks Interfaith Activist Eboo Patel “is, what does it mean to nurture a healthy religiously diverse democracy? … what’s a democracy? It’s not just a place where you elect your representatives. A democracy is a place where you can make personal convictions public. You can make them public in politics, you can make them public in civil society, … Diversity is not just the differences you like; diversity is the differences you don’t like. Diversity is the disagreements,” says Patel.

To make personal convictions public takes courage and

To create a civil society requires civility, or kindness.

To have faith in democracy is to have faith in diversity. “If everybody in the room that you’re in has the same definition of ‘justice’ than you do,” he says “ — I don’t care how many colors, or genders, or sexual preferences, or religions are in that room — it’s not a diverse room.” Whew. So, that’s a tall order. The courage to risk exposing our differences and the kindness to treat them with care once they’ve been exposed.

Faith is intangible and future oriented. That doesn’t mean it’s not real. “Part of the definition of ‘diversity,’ says Eboo Patel, “is the recognition there are diverse understandings of justice.” He does then a beautiful job in this interview on On Being to give two examples of what he means by diverse understandings of justice within his own faith tradition. One is the celebration of Muhammed Ali who died in June, a prominent American Muslim who is celebrated for resisting the war in Vietnam.

The case he made, based on Islam, as a conscientious objector, went all the way to the Supreme Court and he won. Contrast that understanding of justice with the celebration of Humayun Khan, (whose father pulled out the Constitution at the Democratic Convention) Kahn died as a captain in Iraq who gave his life for his country, also celebrated as an American Muslim, but with a different definition of justice. Both definitions of justice – one that demanded going to war, and one that demanded not going to war - are based on Islamic law and both celebrated American heroes. That’s true diversity.

And diversity is the backbone of democracy and our faith tradition. This Unitarian Universalism is at its heart a democratic faith. Not just because we name ‘the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process’ to describe ourselves, but we so describe ourselves because that is our history – a history of conscientiously objecting to creed and orthodoxy as well as to cruelty and violence. Let me remind you that Michael Servetus, 16th century, author of On the Errors of the Trinity, did in fact, actually believe in the doctrine of the trinity. He simply didn’t find proof of this doctrine within scripture and therefore felt it unjust to persecute Muslims and Jews for believing in one God, if the Bible did not contradict that belief. It took courage to take such a stand during the Spanish Inquisition, a courage that cost him his life.

The founders of this country also had tremendous courage. In a 2008 sermon, the Rev. Craig Scott wrote that we can’t look at the founders of this country “without considering Thomas Jefferson, a life-long Episcopalian who rarely attended church. He referred to himself at different times as a ‘theist,’ a ‘deist,’ a ‘rational Christian,’ and a ‘Unitarian.’ He was certainly Unitarian in his theology. Jefferson abhorred the rituals and doctrines of most organized religion, but he was devoted what he saw as the genuine teachings of Jesus. To this end, Jefferson created his own version of the Bible by cutting and pasting the gospels into a compilation of Jesus’ teachings that he believed to be authentic and to reflect the true message of Jesus. Jefferson originated the concept of a “wall of separation between church and state,” language that does not appear in either the Constitution of the Declaration of Independence. He used this phrase in a letter seeking to reassure a congregation of Baptists in Connecticut that they would be free from government interference in the practice of their religion. And finally, we owe to Jefferson a resounding endorsement of Unitarian principles. Jefferson was influenced by the Unitarian theology of Joseph Priestly, which came close to his own theology. In his old age, Jefferson declared, “I trust there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.”

But, of course, this country was not just founded on these beautiful ideals, it was also founded in violence and subjugation of other people. Jefferson himself, as we know, had slaves and at least one (and probably six) offspring with slave, Sally Hemings. Admirers of Jefferson cast it as a romantic love affair and detractors who believe his public statements about race, see him as one more predatory white slave owner using Hemings for sex and companionship like our Thracian Cinderella.

So, though the gap is wide, between the ideal and the reality, that doesn’t mean we quit imagining a future different than the present, imagining a righteous world and then setting about to create it.

Democracy is an ideal, no matter how poorly we go about manifesting it. And this faith tradition, this thing we awkwardly name Unitarian Universalism, is deeply intertwined with that ideal. An ideal which requires both courage and kindness.

Democracy is about self-rule, self-determination. The people rule, it means, in Greek, and yet who “the people” are has been the sore point in our American history. Because at our founding, “the people” did not include African slaves and indentured servants, it did not include women, people who are gay or transgendered, Native Americans… and from time to time, the people rise to complete what was not completed at our founding.

There’s an uprising right now in North Dakota, of the Standing Rock Sioux and many American tribes, to prevent the North Dakota Access Pipeline from crossing ancestral burial sites and other sacred traditional cultural properties, and also – and this is perhaps why so many other environmental activists have joined them – passing underneath the Missouri River half a mile upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation boundary. The pipeline could endanger drinking water. It violates US treaties by endangering water and sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The BBC reports that it is the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than 100 years.

And there was a call this last week for clergy, including Unitarian Universalist, to join the demonstrations. Many of my colleagues went. Many of us couldn’t afford to – either it was financially out of reach, or our time was otherwise committed, or both…. Nic Cable, our former intern, who interns full-time at a congregation with three full-time ministers and second full-time intern, was able to go. I have a call scheduled with him tomorrow to hear about his trip. The scenes of armed militia and reports of pepper spray and dog attacks are horrifying… and yet, not being on the ground, it’s hard to understand what is happening.

Local activist and friend of this congregation, Barb Barton, contacted me last week to ask if we could collect wool socks for her to take to the activists who are planning to stay through the North Dakota winter – which, as a survivor of 3 North Dakota winters as a teenager, I know is no small thing (and I was indoors!) – wool socks seemed like a great idea. Since then, however, we’ve learned that others have had the same great idea and that the protestors have been inundated with socks and warm clothing. It seemed and kind and effective gesture – to collect wool socks here at church and send them with Barb who is headed there the week of Thanksgiving. But alas, democracy is rarely easy. It is often more complicated and layered than we would prefer. So, as much as I would love to offer you an easy way to connect and support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribe protestors and environmental protestors… my suggestion this morning require a bit more work than just bringing wool socks to church. We will post the list of needs – a supply list for the sacred stone camp, they’re calling it, and if your item is small (such as AA batteries), Barb will be able to transport it, and if it is large (such as a tipi), there is an address to which you will need to have your donated item sent. They actually say on their website that they love when we make them signs and banners to carry. If someone were to make such a large banner for us, we could perhaps sign the back during coffee hour next week or the following Sunday, and Barb could then take us with her symbolically… if someone were so motivated. Just a suggestion. But also you may sign petitions, easily found online, and you will vote on Tuesday. Voting on Tuesday is the ultimate expression of democracy, and faith in that process.

For some, voting may not feel like a courageous act because we’ve done it before, sometimes many times, because we live in this democracy, for many reasons. But it is an act of courage. I wear a white stole this morning in honor of those suffragettes who fought with courage for my right to vote, within my grandparents lifetime. Many of us in this room would not have been able to vote when this country was founded, but the increasing inclusion of voters as we mature as a country is both a natural consequence of that dream the founders cast, but took and takes hard work and courage to enact.

Just as the natural consequence of the dream cast by the founders of this faith, this thing called Unitarian Univeraslism, is that we would welcome an increasingly diverse body into our midst. And that diversity changes who it is we are, and some changes you might like and some changes you might not like. Diversity is difference, and not just the difference we like.

Especially in this disheartening election season, where kindness is not easily found, and cynicism is rampant, where dire predictions prevail, to vote, to express one’s confidence in the ability of a people to self-determination, that is courageous.

And let me talk of a little about kindness. Civility. I hope you’ve been able to turn off the news and the ads this week and experienced some actual human contact. Offered and experienced a little kindness to one another. When we allow ourselves to get all wound up and stressed out, when we speculate about the disaster that will befall if our candidate doesn’t win, it gets harder to remember kindness and gentleness – even to be kind to ourselves.

Democracy is hard work. It is not easy to rule ourselves, with all our differences, to welcome the differences. Whether it’s the government of our country, our church, our family, or our person – it takes both courage and kindness. It takes love.

Our theme this month is faith. And it takes real faith to:
* be kind when others are not,
* to have courage when surrounded by fear and terror.

This courage and kindness allows us
* To resist when justice demands, and
* to be resilient, to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.

So, in closing, I’d like to offer a prayer written by colleague, Sarah Stewart, that I found this week on Facebook, as I was trying to keep up with all that was transpiring at the Sacred Stone Camp and the protests in North Dakota. Her words:

We gather in prayer today knowing we live as yet by faith. The country we dream of has not yet come to be; the seeds of justice have not yet borne full fruit; our hopes are still before us. We have not always welcomed the stranger, or clothed the naked, or fed the hungry, or comforted the imprisoned. Yet we can see before us the city on a hill, the nation we long to be, and the way, though crowded with hardship, we may yet walk together in peace. Grant us, O God, the desire to see that way before us and the faith that we may yet unite under our ideals of liberty and justice for all. Amen.