download program: Service Program, 7-11-10
© Doug Slagle, Pastor, The Gathering UCC, all rights reserved
Recently, a liberal was walking down Main Street early one evening when he was soon robbed of his wallet and his watch, he was beaten severely and then abandoned in the gutter, a bloody and unconscious heap. Shortly thereafter, a Pastor from a Progressive church walked down Main Street, spotted the unconscious man and very quickly moved across the street and hurried on by. The Pastor said to himself, in justifying his actions, that the apparent victim could be a drunken homeless person or even someone faking illness in order to rob others. Several minutes later, a local Democratic Party official was rushing down the street talking on her cell phone, when she saw the victim she continued on her way saying she had important political business to address. Finally, a full half-hour after the victim had been attacked, a local Tea Party member also walked down Main Street. He saw the victim, recognized him as a well-known liberal, but was horrified at his condition. The Tea Party member stooped down, lifted up the victim, wiped his bloody face with his shirt, escorted him to his car and then took him to the downtown Hyatt Hotel where he paid for a room and all meals for as long as it would take the victim to recover.
I ask you, dear friends, which one of these persons was a compassionate human and a brother or a sister to the beaten and bloody liberal?
In my very obvious adaptation of Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable, I have not intended to elevate members of the Tea Party or to indict Progressives or Democrats. Far from it. Indeed, I could have easily reversed the characters in the story and had the victim be a Tea Party member with an evangelical minister and Republican Party official ignoring the situation. The rescuer might then have been a Progressive member of MoveOn.org.
My point is to echo the lesson of Jesus. When asked how someone could go to heaven and thus lead a righteous life, Jesus responded that people are to first love god and then love others – one’s neighbors- as much as one loves himself or herself. Expanding on his version of the Golden Rule, Jesus then offers his Good Samaritan parable intending to shock and provoke his audience into seeing that their neighbors – their brothers and sisters – are not just those whom they personally like or associate. To the Jewish ruling elites of the time, Samaritans were a despised group since they refused to worship at the true Temple and follow the majority opinions on how to honor god. But here was Jesus pointedly telling his audience of Jewish priests and officials that a Samaritan – the worst of all political and religious enemies – could be their brother, their sister and their neighbor.
My message today is entitled “And Crown Our Good with Brotherhood” – a line taken from the famous anthem America the Beautiful. As you may know, that song title is our message series theme for this month of July. As we discussed last week how to have a balanced national pride that recognizes what is good AND what is wrong in our nation, and as we will consider whether God is an American Deity next Sunday, today we look at the topic of sisterhood and brotherhood and how we might truly seek to live up to those high ideals. That ethic of common love is one which we often say in our nation that we believe in. To love our neighbor as we too wish to be loved is also a spiritual value found in virtually every known faith tradition throughout history – from that of the ancient Egyptians to Native-Americans to Hindus, Christians and Muslims of today.
And yet in so many ways each of us – with me at the front of that line – we often fail to practice the Golden Rule particularly in our national political, religious and civic discussions. We can turn on our TV’s tonight and watch any number of commentators not only advance their own beliefs but also personally attack, diminish and shout down persons with opposing views. President Obama is called a liar, un-American, a communist, the Anti-Christ and an enemy of our constitution. Just a few short years ago, President Bush was called a baby killer, a liar, a village idiot, a bigot and an enemy of the common man. Liberals are regularly denounced by conservatives as bleeding heart, tax and spend socialists who want to impose a Stalinist type government that will control the lives of all citizens. Conservatives are similarly bashed by liberals as ignorant, money grubbing, and heartless prudes who care nothing for working people and the poor.
And, please, don’t get me wrong. I am a gay man who is likely more agnostic than most, who considers it an honor to have voted for Barack Obama, who believes in Progressive causes and who would like greater government oversight of our economy in order to prevent grave excesses and to assist those who need a hand up in life. I am happy to speak, at another time, about my beliefs. I do not apologize for them and I am very proud to be a member of a Progressive congregation where many also hold similar viewpoints.
When I read many of Jesus’ teachings and when I study all of the other faith expressions of the Golden Rule, I am struck by the power and higher call of our human hearts. In each of us beats the compassion and love expressed by charity, goodwill and love. We yearn to be people of the Golden Rule. We yearn to be people who daily live out the ethic of sisterhood and brotherhood. And yet, when I hear about some position of a conservative politician, I will mutter to myself or to Ed about how evil that person must be. I will harbor a feeling of personal dislike – even hatred – for a conservative who bashes me as a gay man or who denounces universal health care – things I care deeply about. And in my heart, in that place where I want to truly love others, a dark spot will be created and I will have lessened myself. Indeed, as I harbor hatred for another, I hate myself. As one with all humans, as one with all forms of creation, I must either elevate each or else diminish all.
Interestingly, two-hundred and six years ago this very day, on July 11th 1804, a duel took place on the banks of the Hudson River that culminated years of vehement partisan discord engaged in by many of our seemingly virtuous founding fathers. Vice-President Aaron Burr fatally shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel whose origins were based in the debate between Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans. Present day discord between Democrats and Republicans, or between liberals and conservatives, appears quite tame when compared to the debate between Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans. Salacious gossip, vicious personal attacks and outright physical violence were common. Added to the mix was, of course, the press which also divided itself into opposing camps. One newspaper published accounts of Hamilton’s affair with his sister-in-law in order to discredit Federalism. Soon thereafter, a Federalist paper printed innuendo suggesting Thomas Jefferson’s liaison with his slave Sally Cummings.
The father of our country, George Washington, tried valiantly to stay above the fray but when he seemed to side with his Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton against his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, he too was branded a Federalist and a Royalist. Federalists – even though they advocated for a strong central government – were seen as representing the wealthy propertied class against the aspirations of the common man. Tom Paine, the famous pamphleteer who assisted mightily in the American Revolution, later became a Jeffersonian Republican. He wrote publically to Washington, a man whom he had previously championed, “I wonder whether you are an apostate or an imposter; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.” He also loudly questioned Washington’s contribution to the Revolution and even said that he had cowardly spent his time in camp while others won the war for him. A famous political cartoon of the time showed Washington being decapitated by a guillotine in a scene made to appear like the execution of King Louis the Fifteenth of France during the French Revolution. As Americans, just as was taking place in France, we too engaged in vicious and hateful political warfare. All of this was done in the name of politics. From our very beginning, we have not engaged in civil and honorable debate. From the Revolution to the Civil War to debate during the New Deal to the recent years under Clinton, Bush and now Obama, we have engaged in mutual personal political destruction.
In his farewell address as President, George Washington saw the perils of political factions and parties and forcefully appealed for a higher form of civic debate. He said, “Political parties serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community. The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.” The father of our nation, certainly no saint, nevertheless appealed instead for civil discussion, cooperation and work for the good of the nation by ALL citizens.
Last spring, in his commencement address to the University of Notre Dame, President Obama seemed to echo Washington’s words when he appealed for our nation to find common ground regarding the contentious debate over abortion. As much as I deeply cherish the lives of children and stand in awe at the miracle of birth, I also deeply respect the right of women to control the most personal property we must all hold dear – the right to determine the fate of our own bodies. Obama instead asked us to find a way around this polarized debate where people of good intention seek to protect the right to life or the right to control our own bodies. He asked us to work together to reduce the need for any abortion – to educate, to provide contraception, to do whatever is necessary so that very, very few pregnancies are ever unwanted. In this debate that seemingly only has two very opposite sides, Obama urged us to cooperate, to understand the passions of the other side and to find that area where both sides might agree – that no child should be born unwanted.
As I discuss this issue, I imagine I am stirring up in many of you strong passions and stronger opinions. I have them myself. And I do not ask anyone to let go of their convictions. As thinking and feeling people who each come from different backgrounds and circumstances, we are bound to disagree on many things. Indeed, I believe that it is in honest and vigorous debate between opposing viewpoints that we might find the elements of what is true and right. As I have said before, I believe that truth is rarely found on the extremes. We do not live in a black or white world where answers are absolute. Instead, we live in a complex world where issues are not easily solved and there is merit on many sides of a debate. Truth, in my opinion, is most likely found in that murky and mushy grey area.
Three Sundays ago I did something here at church which I don’t like to do. It was something I did secretly and perhaps nobody knows what I did. I found on our table in the other room, where we all like to put out flyers for various causes or organizations, copies of a cartoon depicting members of the Tea Party as buffoons and ignorant hillbillies. I quickly scooped them up, placed them in my pocket, and later disposed of them. I apologize to whoever put those out for display. But I don’t regret what I did.
Someone displayed a cartoon that did not promote their own progressive beliefs but instead personally made fun of the opposition. Unintentionally, the message sent to other members and to visitors is that those who are not like us, are not welcome. And we all strongly know that is not true. I know this was not the intent of whoever placed the cartoon. He or she was simply passionate about their own beliefs and is, I am absolutely sure, a loving person.
I am not an advocate of the Tea Party or what it seems to stand for. I believe in the exact opposite of many of its beliefs. What I do believe in, however, is what I know each of you believe in too. I believe in this unique place called the Gathering. I believe in that name and what it stands for – a place to feel welcome, accepted, loved and celebrated no matter who you are or what you believe. When I walked into this church three years ago, a man who thought that no church could possibly love and accept a gay man, I was blown away by how accepted I felt. Immediately, I was greeted by our resident ambassador of welcome, Patti Wiers, and I was surrounded by others – straight and gay – who asked about me, who cared nothing about my sexuality and who warmly embraced me into their midst. And I know this is true for anyone who comes through those doors. We have loved and accepted Andre – a very vocal religious fundamentalist – and many of you have prayed for him and given thanks for him.
This is a progressive church – many of you are progressives as I am too – but we are also a church that radically seeks to live out the ways of the Golden Rule. I know as sure as I know that the sun will shine again that we truly do wish to practice – to everyone we meet – the command of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. And we do that by embracing all people and showing each other – and visitors – the dignity and respect we all wish to receive.
We have within ourselves the ability to imagine cooperation with our opponents. That is the stuff of moral imagination. Cooperation. Empathy. Understanding. Genuine sisterhood and brotherhood should not be a dream of ours, but a reality. And we can create that reality. These are ideals that we can practice here and that we can promote in our families and circles of influence. We need not forsake our sincere progressive beliefs, but progressivism itself calls us to a higher standard of conduct. The words of Jesus and of millions of other people of faith call out across the span of history to treat our neighbors as we too wish to be treated. This must begin with us. This must begin with me. We cannot wait for others to respect us first.
In a few minutes I will ask all of us to sing that most cliché of unity songs – “Kum Ba Yah”. People often laugh and make fun of the seemingly naïve optimism of the song that speaks of empathy and common feeling. Someone out there is singing and celebrating. Someone out there is crying and in pain. Someone out there is praying and hopeful. The title words to the song are in French and loosely mean “come by my God”. If all humanity is one with the Divine, if we are all its children, then the joy that one of us feels is joy that we all feel. If one is in pain, we all hurt too. To meet the needs of a hurting world, we must work together with both our friends and our opponents – treating each with love and respect. Kum Ba Yah, my lord – come by my god, we are listening……….
I am interested in a couple of questions for our discussion…
- What are some ways that we can improve civil discussion about politics, economics or religion in our nation today?
- Do you think, in general, people tend to stay in groups and organizations comprised of like-minded people – those who agree with them? Can a diverse group include people with significantly different belief systems? How?