In Times Like These: A Theological Spin
November 7, 2004
A couple of weeks before the election, I decided to delay my message on Jezebel that was originally scheduled for today. I knew that our minds would be on the election and thought it would be unusual to NOT to address the recent events in some way. So I sent my title in to Marky for the Newsletter. And it is: In Times Like These: A Theological Spin.My thought was that regardless of what the election results would be, folks would have heard the spins from Republicans, Democrats, and political scientists. Perhaps this service would be an appropriate place for a Theological Spin.
Now theology is the study of God and God’s relationship to the world. Of course many of us have broadened that definition. But if we take the original meaning of theology for our spin – how does God fit into all of this? As I pondered this question, I recalled the bumper sticker that has gotten lots of attention lately. “God is a Republican!” After the election results came in – I began to think – Perhaps God is a Republican. Then I began to hear the information gathered at the exit polls that indicated that Republicans were basing their decision more on moral values than any other reason. But which moral values? Was it those same moral values that, for example, we lift up in our principles? No – it was based on very specific concerns related to stem cell research (a.k.a. – killing babies) and gay marriage. In fact – gay marriage was the number one concern of folks who indicated that moral values were most influential. As I looked more closely at this and read and listened to others, I became even more aware than ever before that we have very contrasting ideologies in our society today. Now not all folks who voted Republican view life through a narrow, fearful lens and not all those who voted Democratic view life through an open, compassionate lens. So perhaps using party names is not an appropriate way to explore this. I believe the terms “closed” and “open” would be a better description. And it seems to me that God – Yahweh God that is – the God of the Old Testament – symbolizes the closed extreme. This ideology is one in which there are definite answers to everything and fear is used to motivate individuals to stay in the box. Listen to these words from the Bible – what some call – The Word of God.
From Nahum – Chapter 1
Yahweh is a jealous God and avenges. Yahweh avenges and is full of wrath. Yahweh takes vengeance on his adversaries, and he maintains wrath against his enemies. Yahweh is slow to anger, and great in power, and will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. Yahweh has his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea, and makes it dry, and dries up all the rivers. Bashan languishes, and Carmel; and the flower of Lebanon languishes. The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt away. The earth trembles at his presence, yes, the world, and all who dwell in it. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the fierceness of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken apart by him. Yahweh is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; and he knows those who take refuge in him. But with an overflowing flood, he will make a full end of her place, and will pursue his enemies into darkness. What do you plot against Yahweh? He will make a full end. Affliction won’t rise up the second time.
That’s the God that motivated our President to remark:
“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
“The action we take and the decisions we make in this decade will have consequences far into this century. If America shows weakness and uncertainty, the world will drift toward tragedy. That will not happen on my watch.”
And Yahweh is the God of Rules and Regulations. And he is a God of Chosen people: Israel in the Old Testament and some say America today.
I could take this analogy further but I think you see the point.
So my “revelation” – if you will – is that Yahweh or Jehovah God represented the same ideology that the extreme right seems to uphold. The WWJD on their bracelets must stand for “What Would Jehovah Do?”
Now travel with me back in time to the top of a hillside in Galilee and hear these words from the New Testament.
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
And this man Jesus also says:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
In the book of Luke, Jesus listens to a wealthy young man describe how he has obeyed all laws and Jesus said, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have, and distribute it to the poor. You will have treasure in heaven. Come, follow me”
Jesus was a radical, over-the-top, spiritual guy who generally was the incarnation of compassion, forgiveness and grace. Remember his words to those who were preparing to do their legal duty to stone the woman who committed adultery? Jesus said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Then he told the woman that he did not condemn her and for her to “Go and sin no more.”
I do NOT believe most Christians today are followers of Jesus. However, I do not condemn them because I don’t plan to go to those extremes either. I’m a pragmatist. And it seems it didn’t work out too well for Jesus.
But I do think in theological terms, Jesus does represent the contrasting ideology to Jehovah God – Father God — the one that Jesus cried out to on the cross saying, “Father, Father, why hast thou forsaken me.”
That forsaken feeling may have been felt by many of us this week. It seemed that our country had forsaken many of the ideals that we felt were promising for the future. Why have those ideals been forsaken?
Perhaps they were forsaken for the same reason that Jesus was crucified. People were afraid. The ideas seemed too radical to most. And just as Jesus’ accusers emphasized the ideas that they knew would get him crucified, the extreme right used divisive issues like gay marriage to sway people who are motivated by fear.
By now most of you have read the various columnists spinning whether this is the “Death of Liberalism” or a reinforcement of progressives when even a “liberal senator from Massachusetts” can run a close race. There are others in the middle indicating that elections work like the stock market, and that this one provides a “corrective” in that some New Deal programs like social security definitely need to be fixed – and probably will be fixed with Republican majorities in both houses. I’m trying to read all of these with as much of an open mind as I can. I do believe that there are things to be learned here. Not that we should give up on our ideals and principles. But, instead, that we should uphold our principles. And one of those principles that we as Unitarian Universalists affirm is democracy.
Now I know I just preached a sermon on our 5th principle last month – but, based on recent events, I feel the need to revisit it, perhaps with a different analysis.
Our fifth principle states that Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
I struggled last month with you in a sermon in which I turned to John Dewey and his views of the democratic spirit to revitalize my belief in this principle. After this election, however, I needed something more tangible to help me keep the faith. Our own Cynthia Frost provided that when she handed me an article by columnist Joan Ryan dated October 28., 2004. The article describes the findings and beliefs of Professor James Fishkin, director of Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy. I’m going to share some excerpts of this article with you.
(Note to Reader: The paragraphs in italics below are excerpted from Joan Ryan’s column dated October 28, 2004 and entitled: “Information Key to Democracy.” Ryan is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle. The article was published in the Statesboro Herald.)
Fishkin notes: “The public collectively is very smart.” But normally they’re not paying much attention and have misinformation. It’s often in the interest of the politicians to give them misinformation. But if you give people a chance to be well-informed, they ultimately are very smart.”
He bases this confidence in ordinary citizens on years of research. . . . Most recently his Center brought together randomly selected voters in 17 cities on a recent Saturday, paying each a stipend and traveling expenses to encourage participation. The voters had been given balanced documents to read on the issues and were polled ahead of time regarding their views. After a full day of discussion with people from different background and points of view, and after an opportunity to ask experts questions on the issues, they were polled again. Few completely changed their mind. But most of those who arrived with sharp-edged, polarized opinions became more moderate, partly because they listened to others, and partly because they became more informed.
Fishkin’s belief in the power of civil discourse to improve the quality of political decisions dovetails with the theory of “collective intelligence.” This dictum says that a large group of diverse, informed, independent-thinking people will almost always deliver the right answer to a question. There is the famous story of Engolish scientist Francis Galton’s visit to a livestock fair in 1906. Visitors were asked to guess the weight of an ox after it had been slaughtered and dressed. No one guessed the correct weight of 1,198 pounds, but the average of the 787 guesses came to 1, 197.
Closer to home, a study showed that the studio audience for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” gave the right answers to questions 91 percent of the time, beating out the supposedly well-informed friends that contestants were allowed to call. The friends got just 61 percent of the answers correct.
The theory of collective intelligence is the theory of democracy. We value democracy not only because it is fair but because we believe a large group of ordinary citizens, more times than not, will make better decisions than an individual ruler, who, though perhaps educated and even wise, is unavoidably limited by his or her life experiences and biases.
This is also why we have juries instead of simply judges.
Ryan’s article goes on to say:
As we try to export democracy around the world, we might do well to revisit how it’s going here. Democracy works well only when the electorate makes an attempt to educate itself and think for itself. We can blame Tucker and Chris and Rush for our ignorance and radicalism. Or we can sign on to Professor Fishkin’s belief that we have the capacity as diverse, thinking people to make the best choices for our country, if we would be willing to be paragraph people in a bumper sticker world.
Fishkin’s ideas would resonate well with the words of encouragement offered by our UU President Bill Sinkford this week and published on the UUA webpage. He said: “The democratic process is an act of faith: not faith that any one point of view will prevail, but faith that the will of the people will point us toward the Beloved Community.”
That doesn’t mean we pray “Thy will be done” to Jehovah though. It means we work cooperatively to find common ground and that we listen to each other to try to understand how we can achieve a beloved community with diverse ideas. Unitarian Universalist’s should be good at this!! It’s what we do in our very diverse congregations.
I’m certainly not suggesting folks should roll over or be silenced. We continue to make our voices heard. But we need a conversation – not a shouting match. And the best way to have a conversation is to be willing to listen.
Sinkford’s closing sentences in his statement affirm this need. He states:
I extend my personal best wishes to President Bush and pray that his leadership will move this nation toward healing. Unitarian Universalists will do our part. We cannot afford to fuel the stridency and divisiveness of this political campaign. Nor can we afford to withdraw. We are an essential part of this body politic. And we will continue our vigilance and our advocacy for the values we hold dear. There is only one destiny for this nation and its people. May that destiny be one of growing justice and equity in our policies and growing compassion in our hearts.
I’ll leave you with this statement to ponder by Martin Luther King, Jr. . . . “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” May it be so.
Amen and Blessed Be.
© 2004 Jane A. Page, Statesboro, GA.
All rights reserved.