Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sermon: "Community, Covenant, and Communication, or, How Nice is 'Midwest Nice'?" (Delivered 4-18-10)

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Commit - To commit to a distinctly Unitarian Universalist way of life. Click here for more information.

First Reading
The first reading is from reporter Sam Stein, who covered the Health Care Vote on March 20, 2010.
Abusive, derogatory and even racist behavior directed at House Democrats by Tea Party protesters on Saturday left several lawmakers in shock.

Preceding the president's speech to a gathering of House Democrats, thousands of protesters descended around the Capitol to protest the passage of health care reform. The gathering quickly turned into abusive heckling, as members of Congress passing through Longworth House office building were subjected to epithets and even mild physical abuse.

A staffer for Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told reporters that Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) had been spat on by a protestor. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement, was called a 'ni--er.' And Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was called a "faggot," as protestors shouted at him with deliberately lisp-y screams. Frank, approached in the halls after the president's speech, shrugged off the incident.

But Clyburn was downright incredulous, saying he had not witnessed such treatment since he was leading civil rights protests in South Carolina in the 1960s.

"It was absolutely shocking to me," Clyburn said, in response to a question from the Huffington Post. "Last Monday, this past Monday, I stayed home to meet on the campus of Claflin University where fifty years ago as of last Monday... I led the first demonstrations in South Carolina, the sit ins... And quite frankly I heard some things today I have not heard since that day. I heard people saying things that I have not heard since March 15, 1960 when I was marching to try and get off the back of the bus."

Second Reading
The second reading comes from the Epistle of James,
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

In conceiving this sermon I suffered metaphorically from a kind of myopia, a case of tunnel vision. With very narrow blinders I imagined that I would talk about communication. I would talk about how we here in this community talk with one another, how we communicate. I would talk about how the way our community exists is powerfully shaped by how we choose to communicate. And, I would talk about the idea of covenant, the idea that there might be some promises that we make to one another about how we will communicate with one another.

And, I had a target in sight. I had identified a habit of being in the world that I was going to take issue with and attack. I was going to describe a type of communication known as “Midwest Nice” and I was going to assail and declaim it from the pulpit. “Hey, Midwest Nice! Get ready to meet Yankee Blunt. I’m going to mess you up.”

And, then the blinders came off. Was I really going to preach a sermon critical of a reserved and measured (and often passive-aggressive) manner of communication at a time when there has been such a massive breakdown of civility in our wider country especially in our politics and in our media?

Three weeks ago, the FBI made arrests in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Arrested were the members of a so-called Christian militia known as Hutaree, whose members were accused of conspiring to foment an uprising that would lead to the overthrow of the United States government. The militia allegedly had planned to murder a police officer and then attack the funeral by detonating homemade explosives in order to achieve the mass death of law enforcement and public safety officials. Federal prosecutors allege the group was planning to set its plans in motion in April in order to coincide with the bombing of Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (April 19, 1995) which itself coincided with the deadly raid on David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas on April 19, 1993.

Or, consider the news account I read earlier in which protesters shouted vile racial epithets at and spat upon African American members of congress just before the health care vote. The protesters also hurled homophobic slurs at Congressman Barney Frank. In the district of Texas Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, a moderate Democrat, protesters referred to Rodriguez and his staffers as “wetbacks” and members of his family received harassing phone calls in which callers shouted, “Go back to Mexico.”

And, here I was planning to preach about the horrible scourge of “Midwest Nice.”

Now, I have to admit, I think we in this church do a pretty good job when it comes to civility. That’s not to say that we never slip up; because we do. But, at least I can say that I’ve never had anyone shout at me during a worship service, “Go home, Yankee!” And, a month from now, at our congregational meeting, I am confident that when the elected leaders of this congregation stand before you, none of you are going to shout, “You Lie!” and that no one is going to throw a shoe at anyone else.

But, before we pat ourselves on the back, let me just remind us that the bar I have just set for civil conduct is extraordinarily low. We don’t throw shoes or shout each other down or spit on each other but, if that fills us with a sense of pride, then we have mighty low standards. We’ve all passed kindergarten communication. This sermon describes a different challenge.

The origins of this sermon came from observing how the leaders of another congregation described themselves. Some time ago I read the congregational record of a UU church in the Midwest, curious to see what they said about themselves. Let me back up a step and explain this process. When a congregation is in search for a new minister they select a search committee, work with an interim minister, and the members of the congregation engage in a series of meetings, intentional conversations, and are asked to complete a survey. Then, the search committee is charged with coming up with a twenty page written document called a congregational record in which the congregation is described by answering a series of questions.

One of the sections on the Congregational Record asks the congregation to name its strengths and its challenges. This congregation wrote that one of its most significant challenges is a culture of “Midwest Nice.” They wrote, “Out of a desire to be kind and ‘not make waves’, we can be indirect and conflict avoidant. This makes it hard to surface and resolve issues and also to make decisions.”

Wikipedia describes “Midwest Nice” (or “Minnesota Nice,” as it is more frequently called) as a stereotypical behavior in which residents are, “courteous, reserved, and mild mannered.” The entry continues,
"According to Annette Atkins, the cultural characteristics of [Midwest] nice include a polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation… She notes that critics have pointed out negative qualities, such as passive aggressiveness and resistance to change. Syl Jones suggests that [Midwest] nice isn't really about being “nice” at all. It's more about keeping up appearances, maintaining the social order, and keeping people in their place."
Well, those are a whole lot of ideas to unpack. So, let me pause right here and ask you, is this cultural stereotype something that you think resonates with some level of truth? Do you feel as if I’ve just described some people you know really well? Or, possibly, do you feel as if I just described you?

So, where exactly am I going with this? Don’t worry. I’m not going to suggest that we combat the scourge of “Midwest Nice” by forming a militia or by rudely interrupting the proceedings of some meeting. But, I do want to suggest that authentic community, by which I mean community at its most meaningful, is damaged by an overabundance of “Midwestern Nice.” It is damaged because if “Midwestern Nice” has do with keeping up appearances, then the community will be one where there will be a great deal of, if not phoniness, then at least something lesser than authenticity.

This sister church of ours in the Midwest listed, among its most significant challenges, a culture in which things get addressed indirectly, people are reluctant to surface concerns that they have, and that, as a result, decisions are challenging to make. They had identified that there was something important to them, something they hoped to achieve, something they hoped to become, that was more important, more critical, than worrying about whether waves got made or feathers got ruffled.

There is a famous formula in the New Testament in which Jesus instructs his followers on what to do when one person has a problem with another person. The formula goes like this: If you have an issue with somebody, go and talk to that person in private. If that doesn’t work, go ahead with a kind of mediation in which a few people of good and temperate judgment help you to have the conversation. And, finally, if that doesn’t work, appeal to whatever power there is in the system that is authorized to make binding decisions. This approach is not some weird and obscure passage from 2,000 years ago and half a world away. It is actually remarkably similar to conflict policies that are the best practices recommended in our denomination. This approach is also seen in other guides to conflict resolution.

I keep coming back to what that other church wrote about itself. We want to be nice to each other. We don’t want to get riled up. We avoid talking about things that might make anyone uncomfortable and because we do that we become stymied and issues of significance and consequence do not come to the surface.

They were asking a question: Is there something more important to us than smoothing things over and not rocking the boat? Is there something more critical than the keeping up of the status quo?

Now, I’ve been accused of being too focused on church. Well, that is just the type of minister that I am. But, for everyone here, I would imagine that you are involved in some association of human beings somewhere where the behavioral patterns of “Midwest Nice” make you feel stuck and stymied and mired. Maybe it is a family conflict. Maybe it is something you encounter in the workplace. Maybe it is a neighborhood association. Maybe it is an organization where you volunteer. Maybe it is this church.

Here are a few questions to ask about healthy communication: Are you able to speak the truth as we know it with kindness and conviction? Is it possible for you to feel heard and understood by another person even though the other person might still disagree with you? Have you ever avoided another person because being in that person’s presence made you uncomfortable because of something you felt as if you ought to say, but haven’t said?

I am fond of saying that church is both the house of the holy and the house of the human. It is also a laboratory of human interaction, a place of risk-taking and opening-up, a place where appearances give way to authenticity. It is a place where we practice the sacred art of being human. Therefore, a cultural tendency to maintain the social order, to resist change, and to avoid confrontation at all costs may actually work against this ability to grow as human beings.

Annie Dillard once wrote, “It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

That quote by Annie Dillard is a favorite one among ministers. I think every UU minister uses it at some point or another. The quote speaks to the idea and the ideal of religious community being a place of risk-taking, of choosing difficult honesty over expedient half-truths. [In the interest of being candid, I should point out that the full version of the Dillard quote is avowedly theistic. The congregation is issued crash helmets and life preservers in the event that God should appear and take offense at our blithe invocations. By excising this part of the quotation, I don’t think I have changed its meaning completely.] Dillard is saying that the religious life, honestly approached, is challenging and treacherous; it involves doing things that make us uncomfortable.

So, I conclude this sermon by urging you to strike a balance. The opposite of those hateful slurs we hear uttered in the public sphere is not disengagement. The opposite of violent extremism is not to smile at everything. As a covenantal church, which is to say a church where relationships take precedence over beliefs, it is imperative that we engage in relationships that are guided by real interpersonal honesty.

I ask everyone here to do one thing this week that moves you towards the edge of your comfort zone. Do something that you couldn’t imagine doing without a crash helmet and a signal flare. Speak the truth. Be kind, but speak the truth, by God.

And remember the words of St. Paul, set to rhyme in one of our hymns,
Though I may speak with bravest fire,
And have the gift to all inspire,
And have not love, my words are vain,
As sounding brass and hopeless gain.