Monday, January 16, 2012

Sermon - "Engaged Democracy"

Engaged Democracy
Today we are talking about democracy, “engaged democracy” to be more specific. When I say that word, “democracy,” there are likely two different things that come to people’s minds. Some people are reminded of a political system, specific structures in a government, a constitution, checks and balances. Other people hear the word democracy and they think of people on the ground educating themselves and organizing, creating what they want their world to look like from the bottom up.
In religious terms it’s actually a whole lot like the concept of the Beloved Community, or the Kingdom of God. There are two very different perspectives on the idea of the kingdom of God. One is that we are compelled to create a beloved community wherever and whenever we can. It is our on our shoulders to create justice and peace, and through that creation, we usher the divine into our midst. Undoubtedly this is the camp that most Unitarian Universalists fall in.
But there is another perspective on the beloved community. And not quite as many, but still a lot of UU’s fall into this category. These are the folks who believe that our personal relationship with God or the divine is of primary concern. And once we align that primary relationship, that spirituality and encourage others to do the same, then the kingdom of God, and the beloved community will come into being.
One perspective depends on individual action to make a path for a higher power to be present in our community, the other depends largely on that higher power being present, and us arranging ourselves in a way that reflects it.

And we can think of Democracy in much the same way, especially in our country. I imagine the lines are similarly split. Most of us believe that democracy is something that we the people must create room for. It’s about individuals learning and making decisions. But another camp, and in many ways and equally valid camp, is invested in the institutions of democracy: the offices held by our leaders, the Constitution, the political process.
Of course both are necessary, both voices are needed. We need to engage from the ground up. But there is also room for celebrating the ideals that our government is based on. It is increasingly popular to rail against our government, particularly in recent years with financial crisis, lingering wars, and corporate influence tainting the process. American politics are a bit of a mess right now. But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if rather than saying “they’re all a bunch of back-stabbing losers,” we said, “you know we’re disappointed. Our institutions are better than this, and you as individuals are smarter and better than this.” What if rather than condemning our leaders, we simply said we know you are capable of doing better.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not think American democracy is perfect. But I do think that the founding principle is a good one. I do think that that political system has tremendous potential. I do think that many brilliant men and women have invested their lives in a career of public service. Do you remember that, when we used to call politicians public servants?

I do my best to come up with catchy titles for my sermons. Sometimes it works, other times not so well. I’m feeling like this week, is a “not so well” week. That’s because the title of this sermon “engaged democracy” is totally redundant. Any functional democracy, whether it is large or small has to be an engaged one. Once people stop taking an interest in the decisions their leaders make, and once leaders of a community lose interest in what the people want, democracy has lost its hold.
Maybe “engaging democracy” would have been a better title. But Engaged Democracy is just redundant. By its very nature, democracy demands participation to exist. It is inherently an engaged system of government.
Democracy must be engaged from the top down and from the bottom up. That raises the obvious question, “how can we, each one of us, engage our democracy?” A little reminder of civic duty never hurts. So here we go:
The first and most obvious way is to vote. But don’t just go in secretly and quietly. Make sure your family and your friends vote as well, even the ones that you know may vote the other way. It’s astounding to me how low our voter turn out is, especially as a country that so prides itself on being a model of freedom. We had 57% percent that at the polls for the 2008 presidential election. And that was the biggest turn out in forty years. I’m typically not a big fan of pressuring people to do things. But encouraging people to vote isn’t about pushing your own political agenda. It’s about encouraging a healthy society.
And, voting requires more than walking into a voting booth and making a random choice. Participating in democracy requires a certain level of awareness. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to get meaningful news about political issues. News sources from both the right and the left have become echo chambers. They repeat to their consumer exactly what they want to hear to reinforce and already established opinion about any given issue. The job of education ourselves is getting harder, but it is still ours. You don’t have to be a political analyst, but read a newspaper now and again. And, try to pick up a news source that is not necessarily reinforcing your viewpoint. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Of course there are also voter guides to help navigate the tangle of ballot initiatives that come up in California. Both the League of Women Voters, and Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of California produce a guide every time there are initiatives on the ballot. And we offer those here at the Fellowship.
And finally, you can donate your time and money to organizations that promote democratic values. Of course you can support the particular issues and candidates, as I know many of you do. But also consider using some of those resources to encourage the democratic process as a whole. Several different organizations work to enhance American democracy. And they all need your support.

Hopefully it has not been completely lost on you that these are also the things that we need to engage here in this congregation. Most of what we ask for explicitly is money. And that is important. The members and friends of this Fellowship give a lot to keep us going. But just like participating in democracy in the wider world, there is more than money involved, or at least there should be more than money involved if we are going to be a healthy community.
Following our service today is our Annual Meeting. This is the one time each year that members of the Fellowship vote to approve our annual budget and to elect our leadership for the coming year. It may not seem like that big of a deal, like someone else will vote for you. But please consider how you feel about people saying that about our wider democracy. “I’m sure other people will vote and take care of it.” Our health as a community depends on engagement from the members and from the leaders. This meeting is the primary moment when that engagement occurs.
So please stay for the annual meeting after worship. And I have one more request from you for the sake of our community. Educate yourself about what’s going on in the life of our community and read the newsletter. It may not seem necessary. Maybe you think you will hear about the big important stuff anyway. But we cannot have a one on one phone call with each member. A team of people works very hard to publish good information in the newsletter and announcements. We publish put out as much news as possible, but we need you to meet us half way and read it.

It’s the only way to really stay informed about the decisions that we face as a community. It’s also the best way to find out about the decisions and changes we face as well as all of the events that we put on.
This past Wednesday we had a screening of the award-winning documentary “Eyes on the Prize.” It’s an in-depth look at the civil rights movement. I had probably seen it four times in school growing up, but it’s wonderful to watch as an adult. The most remarkable part of this film is the amount of original footage that it uses. You hear the voices and see videos of all the action, from interviews with a young Rosa Parks to the Governor of Mississippi insisting on the holiness of segregation and the state’s legal right to enforce.
As we were watching Wednesday night, one speech in particular stood out for me. It was a young, I want to say 26 year old, Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to a crowd at the very beginning of the bus boycott in Montgomery. He spoke beautifully about the struggle they were about to embark on. And it was a struggle. Boycotting the bus meant walking miles to work every day for over a year. He reminded them that the struggle wasn’t just for Blacks in Selma, or just for Blacks in the United States. It was a struggle for justice.
In grade school I was taught about King’s work to end segregation in the South. We learned that that was his mission, and that was all. It wasn’t until much later that I learned King’s vision of justice was an expansive one. He moved far beyond the struggle for integration to speak about the crushing poverty of Blacks throughout America. And he was one of the most powerful voices criticizing the horrors of the Vietnam War.
I knew that he personally expanded his vision of justice throughout his career. But I didn’t know that from the very beginning, from the time Rosa Parks stayed in her seat on the bus, he knew that it was about more than busses, or Blacks. He knew that justice was an expansive thing. When it took hold in one place, it could ripple out around the world.
And I think the same is true for us, and the democracy that we support. This may sound a little grandiose, but hear me out. I think engaging in our church community makes a difference for democracy in the wider world. I don’t think that having our annual meeting here in 20 minutes will usher in sweeping democratic reform in China. But I do think, actually I know, that what we do here affects the lives of our members. When we care enough to engage our community, to look at a budget, and care about our leaders, we expand our personal capacity for democratic life. It may be miniscule on an individual level, but when the 85 members of our congregation expand their capacity for democracy, that change isn’t so tiny.
What we do here impacts our lives when we leave this building. If it doesn’t, then we are failing miserably as a church. I believe, and I have heard our members say, that being active in the community impacts how they think and feel and act in the outside world. And I deeply hope that one of those impacts in an increased sense of responsibility for maintaining a community that rests on democratic principles.

Democracy is a dynamic thing. It requires action, it must be engaged. And Democracy is expansive. Like King’s vision of justice, when we support democracy in small scale, we make it more possible on a large scale. In closing I want to talk a little bit about why this all matters. Why do the work to create it? Why does it matter if it spreads? Well Democracy matters because it is central to our faith. As Unitarian Universalists, and generally as Americans, we believe in democracy.
I have preached time and again about how Unitarian Universalism is a reflection of the democracy as established in the United States. Everything about our structure reflects the democratic ideals and operations of the wider country. But I’m talking about not our faith tradition, but our personal faith. Whether you realize it or not, you and I believe in democracy.
That may sounds ideological, but it is true. In different places and in different times people have organized society based on what they believed to be true about God and about themselves. Not so long ago, and still in many places today, a sovereign ruler had power over the land. That individual was endowed by God with the power and the ability to lead a people. That one individual was believed to have been different, above others in his or her ability and knowledge.
Some movements within Islam have faith in a different kind of political order. They believe that the laws written and derived from the holy book, the Koran, should be the foundation of society. They believe that a particular set of rules is necessary to maintain social order and to revere Allah.
But you and I believe something different, about the divine and the human. We sang about it earlier in our worship service. “Voice still and small, deep inside all, I hear you call, singing. In joy and pain, sorrow and rain, still WE’LL remain, singing.” We believe that each and every person has a conscience, a voice within that leads them toward doing the right thing. “Voice still and small, deep inside all, I hear you call, singing.” No individual, not matter how great or powerful, is entitled to silence that voice. No ancient law, not matter how wise, is more sacred than the voices of today.
Democracy is at the core of our faith tradition. More importantly, democracy rings true for what you and I believe to be true about our fellow human beings, and the sacred. It is where you own personal faith and belief rests. The way we organize ourselves is a reflection of our values and our faith. Some will tell you that Democracy is the most reasonable form of government, or that capitalism is the most productive economic system for generating growth.
But I want to tell you today that democracy is, more than an efficient or productive form of government. Democracy is what we believe to be true and right. And that truth, that rightness is why it is the responsibility of each on of us to participate.


1 comment: