Monday, May 17, 2010

Sermon - The Limits of Democracy

The Limits of Democracy
Because my mother is here visiting today, and because it’s usually what a sermon boils down to anyway, I’ll start with a little motherly advice. The words “Everyone else is doing it,” is not a logical argument or a way to justify your actions. We have all heard some rendition of this reprimand, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?” And perhaps we should hear it more often. “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?”

Because it doesn’t apply only to the teenager who wants to stay our later, or the child who engages some dangerous adventure. That reprimand applies to us on a much larger level. In fact it’s the best way that I can think to describe the limits of democracy. “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?” Democratic countries including our own have perpetrated tremendous injustices, evils I would even say, because it’s what the people thought was right. Time and time again, the majority of people voted to oppress the minority. Everyone else was supporting slavery, everyone else thought segregation was working, everyone else in California thinks that gays shouldn’t marry. That’s democracy right?

Well today we are talking about the limits of democracy, both in our country, and in principle. When we talk about it in basic governmental terms, the ideals of democracy are great, but there are actually deeper principles that are the foundation of this county. They are the ideals that are written out in great detail in our Constitution, the supreme law of the land.

And in our ethical / religious life, there are also some limits to democracy. Sometimes we are called to stand up and speak out, even when the majority has made its claim clear. Sometimes we have to speak our conscience. Sometimes we have to be a prophet.

But let’s get back to the governmental sense of democracy, sense that’s what most of us think of in the first place. We are inclined to say that we live in a democratic country, that the best thing about the United States is that it is governed by the people through our ability to vote. But I want to take us on a brief civics lesson. This may be reminiscent of grade school, but it is important.

Yes we do live in a democracy, but in a particular kind of democracy, a constitutional democracy. Our government was never set up to universally follow the whims of the culture. The founding fathers knew that ethics, and therefore government must be more that a popularity contest, so they created not just a democracy, but a constitutional democracy.

In fact democracy, the concept that everyone gets a voice, is largely a tool to guarantee some more important details. That’s generally what it says in the beginning of the U.S. Constituion. There are fundamental truths, privileges, and rights, that are the real goal. The government, the democracy is brought about to attain those fundamental truths, rights, and privileges. It’s basically the preamble to the constitution.

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Am I missing anything? There was nothing in there about each person having their voice heard. There was nothing in there about equal representation.

I’m not suggesting that anything is wrong with democratic principles. In fact I think it’s the most fair way to govern our country and I feel blessed to be a part of it. However, we need to be clear, democracy is a tool, it is a means to an end. It is the form of government that we USE to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. Democracy is not the goal, but the means by which we might one day achieve those higher ideals.

So what does this mean for us on the ground? It’s not just political science babble. It means that if our government were left to a pure democracy, we may never have evolved into who we are today as a society. It means that Brown V. The Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling that ended school segregation, was based on the constitution. Without that particular document to rely on popular opinion would have held fast, and schools would have remained segregated.

Each amendment to the constitution guarantees critical rights to citizens, that even when they become unpopular, may not be denied. You don’t have to go beyond the first of twenty-seven amendments to see how critical this document is. The first amendment guarantees our rights of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of petition. I mean really, it kind of guarantees the right to be a Unitarian Universalist. It guarantees our right to stand up as a voice of dissent, as a religious minority, and not fear that the majority will simply vote to silence us. That’s important stuff, and it is anything but democracy.

This morning, we are talking about the limits of democracy. It is a particularly important topic, not as a civics lesson. It is important to us, because as Unitarian Universalis, we hold Democratic principles as one of our highest values. We read it to together earlier in the responsive reading. It’s in the fifth principle. We affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

It’s interesting. I wonder if other religious institutions specify the form of governance that they believe in as a principle. We are very clear, that we think that the best form of governance for our religious community, and for our country is governance by the people, where each voice is heard equally. We believe in democracy because we believe that we as humans, are our best selves when we come together in community to solve our problems on an equal footing.

But we also believe on something else. Something that occasionally stands in stark contrast to democracy. We believe in the prophetic imperative. Each person has not only the right, but the responsibility to speak what is in their heart and act on their conscience. You may have noticed that “the right of conscience,” is actually listed as a value in the same principle as democracy. We affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

That seems to me like a really nice sense of balance, the democratic process and the right of conscience. Of course I would through in our Constitution as well, as a nice guardian of rights. So what is the prophetic imperative? What is this balance to the will of the masses?
Prophetic Imperative
The prophetic imperative is a right and responsibility to speak up when we know that something is not right. And it is hard, it means standing up to the prevailing culture, often to the democratically recognized public opinion, to say “STOP, This is not right.” Ethics is not a popularity contest. In fact sometimes, it’s only a small handful of people who are able to recognize the gross injustices of a wider society. Sometimes it’s only one, a prophet.
We often think of prophets as people who foretell the future. That is one role that they play, but in Hebrew, the term is most often used to describe someone who speaks for someone else. The prophet is not an ancient fortuneteller, but simply someone who speaks on behalf of another.

The Hebrew Bible is full of stories of prophets. There are major prophets and minor prophets. Today, we read them as fairly simple stories as individuals bringing warning about injustice. But these ancient stories of prophets carry revolutionary significance for human history.

Take the story of Naboth for example. Because Naboth refused to turn over his family vineyard to King Ahab, he was framed on false charges of blasphemy. And because blasphemy was a capital crime, his property then reverted to the throne. It was an obvious set up by the king, an abuse of power to exploit his subject. When news of the abuse of power reached Elijah, we hear that “the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel. Say to him, “Thus says the Lord. You have killed and taken possession. In the palace where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also luck up your blood.” (1Kings 21:18-19)

In this story Elijah was not a priest. He had no formal authority for the terrible judgment he delivered to King Ahab. The normal pattern would have called for him to be struck down immediately by bodyguards on the spot. But Elijah was a prophet. The fact that he was “speaking for” an authority not his own was so clear that the king accepted Elijah’s command

The prophets of the Hebrew Bible created a particular role in society. Brave men and women throughout history have been empowered to speak the truth, no matter who is in official control. Prophets have risen up to point out injustice as they “speak for” God, speak for the ideals of truth and love.

But being a prophet isn’t easy. Probably the best example of a prophet that we are most familiar with is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We obviously know that in the end, King was assassinated. But long before that his home and his family were targeted multiple times, with words, with rocks, and with bombs. We glorify him today, but King’s path was no easy one. I can’t imagine the kind of pressure he must have felt, torn between the truth that burned in his heart, and the continual threats on his life.

The person carrying a truly counter-cultural message, the person who poses a real challenge to the way things are is never safe. You can say it is conspiracy, or the workings of a single mad person, or a hatefilled individual. Regardless of who perpetrates the actual act of violence, it is nearly impossible for a society to hear a message that is fundamentally opposed to what everyone is doing. It’s the story of King, of Gandhi, of Socrates or John Lennon

The power, the danger of their message wasn’t that they stand up for the rights of a particular group. What the prophet offers is much more challenging. The prophet raises a mirror to society, and points out a failure to live up to democratic principles. That was the dangerous piece of King’s message after all. It wasn’t his message of racial equality that really stirred the pot. King was a prophet, because he pointed to race, and poverty, and war, and the intersection of these injustices as a foundation for American government. He held up a mirror at a critical moment in history to show a democracy the fundamentally injustice it enacted.
You see the challenge to democracy is not made for the sake of the individual. That can easily be put aside as someone arguing on their own behalf to get their own piece of the pie. The real challenge to democracy comes when prophetic men and women stand up but for the sake of the whole, when they call society into account to actually live out its democratic ideal.

This moment of a leader, a prophet encountering God, is repeated over and over in the Bible. It is a genre or a type of story. Each of the major prophets has his moment of confrontation with his mission. In almost every case the prophet is totally astonished, frightened, and at first tries to reject the challenged placed on his or her shoulders. Yes, this occurs with women as well.

I have a particular fondness for the way that Moses understands his leadership. In this short little story, we can see some amazing symbolism for how he answers. He gives every excuse to say, oh you couldn’t possibly mean me. The people won’t believe me he says. I don’t have the right words, he says. Even Moses was reluctant to accept his calling. He knew that it came with risk and responsibility. Likewise for us, the more seriously we take an activity in our lives, the scarier it can be to jump into. Following your calling is a scary thing.

These call stories are also a part of other traditions. Muhammed was unable to read or write before he encountered Allah. In his call experience Allah required him to read the blazing writing before him and three times Muhammed said, I cannot do it, until and angel wrapped its wings around Muhammed and squeezed. Only then did he begin to speak the word of God. Only with a supportive embrace of an angel could he utter the terrifying and holy truth.

And the story of Sidartha, the Buddha as a young boy. Although his call story was not a conversation with God, there is a clear story of his discovery of his role in the world. It was a long and difficult journey for him to accept his role a teacher of different way of being.

These stories come up over and over again. Throughout time and around the world, people have been called to deliver challenging messages and to act in new and bold ways. They have been called to create justice, to question the prevailing social order, they have been called to live out what they knew in their heart they must do. And always, it is a challenge. So why should it be any less of a challenge for us?

So what does all of this talk of democracy and prophetic imperative mean for us on the ground? Well, for starters, it means that some Unitarian Universalist congregations have stood up to democratically enacted injustices and spoken out. We have even on occasion stood in opposition to the law. Just this past week I was sharing stories with some of our members about the mess of the Vietnam War. In that conversation I heard about how one of the Orange County congregations said enough is enough. We won’t send our young men to die in Vietnam. And they began a sanctuary movement. They housed these young men in the basement of the church, hiding them from the U.S. government.

More recently, we have seen the frightening force of unjust democracy in California. In 2008, a majority of California voters chose to remove the rights for gay and lesbian people to get married. Of course that proposition, and the entire issue is still in the courts. And hopefully our Constitution will hold up the rights of individuals over the whim of the majority. But I can’t think of a better reminder for us as UUs in California, than that proposition. Ethics is not a popularity contest. The right thing is not always what the people decide. And sometimes we have to stand up against what has been ordained by the system of democracy.

In closing today I want to call your attention to one more democratically created pile of injustice. And it’s happening just across our state boarder in Arizona. I had not intended this sermon to be about the situation in Arizona, but on Saturday afternoon, as emails from my ministerial colleagues flooded my email box, I realized I couldn’t not speak about Arizona.

This is AZ State Senate Bill 1070, the law, which both proponents and critics say is the broadest and strictest immigration measure in generations. It would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime. And more importantly, it gives the police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. This law is an open invitation for harassment and discrimination against Hispanics regardless of their citizenship status. It is cruel, it is oppressive, it is simply wrong. And it is being enacted by democratically elected leadership.

“Everyone else is doing it mom, Why can’t I discriminate?” Well, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?” Let us answer that question with a resounding NO. While we can’t cast our vote in the state of Arizona, we can cast our dollars away from it. Already the City of Los Angeles has passed a resolution to not do business with the state of Arizona. I may encourage the City of Laguna Beach to do the same.

Also, in two weeks, there will be a march in Phoenix on May 29th. UU’s from across the country are organizing to participate in this march. And I want to talk with a few of you after the service today, about the possibility of joining them. Because ethics is not a popularity contest, because there are limits to the value of democracy, and because our faith demands that we take seriously the call of our conscience, please consider how we might stand together against injustice in Arizona, and anywhere that Democracy is used to diminish equality rather than encourage it.


No comments:

Post a Comment