I really do believe in our fifth principle, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” People should have a vote, a say, in what affects them.
Mark Twain said that, “In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from others.”
Mark Twain was not a member of a Unitarian Church, but he did have a lot of Unitarian friends. He clearly thought that people should examine their beliefs and convictions for themselves, and not take them on second hand authority. It is what our faith asks us to do. Our principles call us to examine our beliefs, to test them against our reason, our experience, and our hearts. They call on us to do the research, to check our sources, to search for truth and meaning in matters of politics as well as religion.
We can’t just believe the slogans, and we can’t just expect our leaders to save the day.
We are a liberal religion, by definition, because we promote the first hand authority of the individual conscience, because we don’t expect everyone to agree about everything, particularly when it comes to theology.
There is room in this faith for atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, and followers of just about any other religious tradition. To be comfortable in one of our congregations, however, most people find that it is important to at least be open to the idea that spiritual traditions and practices other than their own just might be very valid for other people. The same is true of opinions about options and decisions, whether they are political or about congregational life. Quoting 15th century Unitarian minister Francis David once again, “we need not think alike to love alike.”
Democracy is one of the methods we use to move forward despite, and sometimes even because of our differences.
It is tricky business, democracy. Too often the majority can tend to vote to deny the rights of a minority. We have seen that often in this country. If it was up for a simple vote, we would still have Jim Crow laws in the south, we might even still have chattel slavery. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people would forever be treated as second-class citizens or even sent to jail, simply because of who they are and who they love. For our country, we have a court system that tries to balance the will of the majority and the rights of individuals.
As Unitarian Universalists, we also have our other principles to guide us as we practice democracy both in the public square and in our congregations.
I am definitely a values voter.
When faced with a political choice, I measure both candidates and ballot measures against the 7 principles of our faith. Will my vote help promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Will it bring more justice, equity and compassion into human relationships? Does it serve to forward the goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all? Does it respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part?
There is one important proposition on the ballot in the upcoming election that I think can be directly to the 4 principles I just mentioned. Our Social Justice Committee has taken it on as a major focus this year, and they were very right to do so. I am talking about Proposition 47.
Like all proposed laws, the proposition is complicated. It very likely isn’t perfect, very little is. The main thrust of the initiative is to redefine many non-violent crimes, such a drug possession and petty theft, as misdemeanors rather than felonies. This will reduce our prison population significantly and will allow those convicted to perform community service or other methods of restitution instead of just serving time. The money saved will be diverted to the schools, to drug treatment programs, and to mental health and victim services.
Currently there are 2.2 million Americans in prison or in jail. We have less than 5% of the world’s population and almost 25% of the prison population. We have the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. This makes no sense.
Some of reason for this is the amount of money that is being made by the privatized prison industry. Those corporations give generously to politicians and they lobby for measures that will increase their income stream.
Some of it, too, is due to racism. African Americans are six times more likely to be sent to prison than are whites. They also serve longer sentences, often for the same type of crimes. Roughly a third of all black men are involved in the criminal justice system in some way, which can lead directly to police violence as police officers tend to see all people of color as criminals. They shoot first and ask questions later.
Racism in this country runs very deep. Rooted in the sin of slavery, buttressed by a false mythology of equal opportunity, America has held too many people of color captive as an economic underclass. Now we are simply sending them to jail, partly as a political strategy. People in jail cannot vote. In many states, people with felonies on their records cannot vote. That too is a violation of our fifth principle.
I could go on, but in many ways, I am just preaching to the choir here. I am, instead, going to refer all of you to the Social Justice Committee. They will be in the back of the hall after the service to answer any questions you might have and they also have lots of ways for you to get involved to help California make this small step toward both equity and compassion.
I do believe that passing proposition 47 will be a very good thing, and that it is very much in keeping with all of our seven principles. I am not, however, telling you how to vote. Do your research, listen to your heart, and vote your conscience. We don’t have to think alike to love alike.
Our opening words this morning, a poem I wrote awhile back, is in some ways a song of praise to being liberal, a term that has a bad rap on both the right and the left these days. Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion.
Definitions of liberal include the following:
Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes. “We have always done it that way,” is not a good answer in one of our churches. It might be an explanation, but it doesn’t or shouldn’t close off the consideration of other options.
To be liberal is also to be open to new ideas, to be broad minded and tolerant of the ideas and opinions of others. It is to be generous in spirit.
I have been here as your developmental minister for 7 weeks now. Your leadership asked for a developmental minister because, I quote:
“Our fellowship is aging out, as are our buildings. We are treading water in every conceivable manner.
On our present trajectory of asset drawdown, our endowment will be gone in 4-5 years. We need to radically reinvent ourselves to thrive in a challenging era.”
The charge I received from your board of trustees, as described in their application to the UUA who sent them my name in response, was as follows.
“Catalyzing the transformation of BFUU into a sustainable and vibrant congregation, capable of thriving in a challenging future.”
It is a challenging task, and one that will take the efforts of all of us, working together. There will be mistakes and missteps and conflicts along the way. Some of you may even feel that transformation is not necessary, that everything was just fine the way things were.
We have made some fairly significant changes recently to the format of our Sunday services. Some of you like the changes and some of you miss what was done before. That is OK – remember – We need not think alike to love alike.
Because the feedback has been mixed, I want to keep trying what we have been doing for at least several more months, tweaking as we go along, but not simply going back to the old format.
The board and I will evaluate how it is going at some point in the future, with input, of course, from all of you. This is a democratic instituion.
Our 5th principlestates that we will use the democratic process within our congregations. It is important to notice that word, “process”.
Democracy does not mean that everyone gets their way. That is frankly impossible in any human community. We are diverse. We have different opinions, ideas, concerns and needs.
Your elected board of trustees and I are doing the best we can to lead this fellowship into a future that will encourage both the spiritual and numerical growth of this community. We want it to continue to exist and to serve not only those who are here today, but also those who may come in the future. The Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists is never going to be a mega-church, and I don’t know anyone who wants it to be. It does have the potential, however, to be perhaps a hundred members strong, financially sustainable, and providing a welcoming community to all who come.
Your board and I are doing what we are doing because of our love for this congregation and for this faith of ours. Please give us a chance.
There is a wonderful poem by ee Cummings, that I think applies here:
It is called “dive for dreams,”
Dive for dreams
Or a slogan may topple you
(trees are their roots
and wind is wind)
trust your heart
if the seas catch fire
(and live by love
though the stars walk backward)
honour the past
but welcome the future
(and dance your death
away at this wedding)
A slogan may topple you. Don’t believe the slogans. Dive deep for your dreams, trust your heart, and honor the past while welcoming the future. Try new things. You might find you like them.
I am not at all sure that it is possible to not be afraid of change. Change always brings some loss. Rather, I would hope for us all to grow courage in spite of our fears.
May it be so! Namaste