Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Sermon: "Escaping the Mall: An American Exodus" (Delivered 11-21-10)

Last month I was in Dallas, Texas, and I spent a little bit of time with John Buehrens, former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. John’s been a minister for forty years and he spoke about a change that he has observed. John talked about how for most of his ministry, come-inners to Unitarian Universalism have, by and large, found their way here after fleeing the Methodist church. They have found something in Unitarian Universalism that they were not finding in Methodism. John commented that over the last decade he has seen a shift. Increasingly, he has observed that those who come to us are not doing so out of a rejection of the Methodist church. More and more of our families, especially our younger ones, are less likely to have grown up steeped in religion. If anything, their experience has been that of nominal church involvement, mostly to humor their grandparents. As John Buehrens put it, those who come here aren’t escaping the Methodist church or Mainline Protestantism or Catholicism.

I’ve titled my remarks this morning “Escaping the Mall: An American Exodus.” This morning, when I talk about escaping the mall, I am not going to focus on consumerism or materialism. I want to be clear about this because later this week, on the day after Thanksgiving, we are going to be throwing a church event that will provide a counter-cultural alternative to the values and practices of reckless consumerism that go hand in hand with the so-called secular holiday of “Black Friday,” what has been called our nation’s Feast Day of Consumption.

This morning, when I talk about escaping the mall, when I repeat John Buehrens’ claim that those coming to us are escaping the mall not the Methodist church, I am talking about something larger than materialism and consumerism. I am talking about a culture that is all too often hollow and disappointing. And, I am talking about an unsustainable way of living that does not support the fullness of human life or the health of our planet.

So often, when someone starts on down this road, there is a tendency to sound like one of those fuddy-duddies who didn’t like the way Elvis Presley moved his hips. When I criticize culture I am not getting in touch with my inner Tipper Gore; I’m not talking about putting warning labels on rap albums. And, I am not parroting the conservative Christian rallying cry about the moral depravity of Hollywood; those charges are so often replete with thinly veiled anti-Semitism, homophobia, and racism. Yes, I will be the first person to admit that popular entertainment often fails to be edifying. I do believe that bread and circus are in no short supply these days, and that these amusements do breed complacency. But, this is only a small part of what I am talking about.

So often, when someone starts down this road, there is a tendency to sound like a Luddite. Kids these days play too many video games and spend too much time texting. I do think that our relationship with technology deserves critical attention, but it is only a small piece of the whole.

I want to talk about something larger than rampant consumerism, larger than banal entertainments, and larger than technological distractions. I want to offer a critique not only of our culture but also of the reality to which and for which our culture speaks.

In the history of our country, my generation and the generation younger than mine will be the first generations to have, on average, a lower standard of living than our parents had. And yes, that does mean that we will have, on average, less money and/or less stuff. But it also means, in some sense, a foreclosure of certain options and opportunities.

The standard of living that my generation and the generation right behind mine will experience is not the only part of the American experience that is on the decline. Although his book is already a decade old, the Bowling Alone phenomenon continues to have an impact on our culture. In Bowling Alone, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam studied the decline in participation in American civic life. One of the fascinating parts of his book was that he showed that Americans were disengaging from all facets of civic life. You might observe, as Putnam did, that political participation has been on the decline for fifty years. Less people vote. Less people take an active role in their political party. And so on. You may look at this data and think: Look at Watergate. Look at the Clinton sex scandal. Look at the Florida recount. Look at the attack ads and unrestricted corporate spending. Politics is cynical and unsavory. But Putnam shows that people are not taking their lack of enthusiasm for politics and putting it to use elsewhere.

Similarly, a lot has been made out of the statistics that show a decrease in religious affiliation in the United States, and the growing ranks of the unchurched. For example, there are 3 million fewer Methodists today than in 1968 and just about every Mainline denomination has shown comparable rates of decrease. When presented with these facts, people who don’t particularly care for Christianity will cheer and say, “That just shows Americans are becoming more rational.” Except that Putnam shoots that theory out of the water. It is not that people are disengaging from political participation because politics is slimy or that people are disengaging from religious participation because of a higher consciousness. Putnam shows that people are less engaged across the board: they also participate less in secular service organizations and are less likely to belong to community groups.

There is an old myth that says that liberals don’t support their churches financially because they give to so many other organizations. That logic is just not true. There are no facts to support such a statement. People who study charitable giving show that people who give at a high level to religious organizations give at a higher level to other organizations than people who don’t give financially to religious organizations.

The same is true about participation in a religious community. Those who don’t belong to a church have a tendency not to belong to much else either. Those who do participate in a religious community tend also to have high levels of participation elsewhere. This point is crucial. As with fiscal generosity, civic participation is not a zero-sum game. People who are active in politics tend to also be active in religious organizations and community groups. Those active in community groups tend also to be active in political and religious organizations. Those who are active at their local church or synagogue are also active in political, community, and service organizations.

Sixties countercultural guru and LSD enthusiast Timothy Leary famously advised his followers to “Tune in, turn on, and drop out.” In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam describes an American society in which people have not only dropped out, but have also tuned out and turned away.

There is an image from the contemporary world of pop-culture that I think of when I think of Bowling Alone. From 2002-2008, HBO ran five series of the drama The Wire. Critically acclaimed, The Wire was a cop drama set on the mean streets of Baltimore, but it was more than a cop drama. It was a biting look at the corruption and decline of various social institutions. The first season focused on the corrupt bureaucracy of the police department; the second focused on the decline of unions; the third dealt with political corruption; the fourth dealt with the city’s broken school system; and, the fifth season chronicled the decline of the newspaper. At the start of the second season we find that Stringer Bell has risen to the top of Baltimore’s illegal drug trade. Stringer, more businessman than gangster, begins to organize rival drug gangs into a cooperative enterprise. In a stroke of comedic brilliance, he runs the meetings of these hardened criminals with a copy of Roberts Rules of Order in hand. It is a running gag and it is hilarious to hear Stringer Bell say things like, “The chair recognizes…”

The humor here is dark. The humor is about the decline of social capital. And, there is a painful truth to it as well. A few years ago I organized a small group of generational cohorts. They were all successful young professionals with advanced degrees. In the group I was the only person to have ever served on the board of a non-profit organization. Roberts Rules of Order meant about as much to them as it did to the Baltimore drug dealers on The Wire.

It is one thing to be a cultural critic and to slam the talking heads of Fox News, the banal mix of voyeurism and cruelty that is evident in so much reality television, misogynist messages in music, or the number of hours many teenage boys spend playing video games. It is another matter to understand that we are living in an age in which standards of living will diminish for young people and civic engagement is in decline. Commentators such as Chris Hedges have drawn a comparison to the Roman Empire. It is foolish to critique the Roman gladiator games without a wider understanding that the Roman Empire was in decline.

It is that larger reality that I am speaking to this morning. There is something that I’ve observed in my interactions with those of in the congregation who are not Gen-Xers, or Gen-Yers, or Millennials. Those who have children or grandchildren in their teens, twenties, or thirties often express a deep sense of concern and worry for their children and grandchildren. That concern comes out many ways:
Sometimes the concern is expressed over what is perceived as a lack of ambition.

Sometimes the concern has to do with the crippling debt, personal or educational, with which that person is burdened.

Sometimes the concern has to do with the difficulty that this young person has finding work that offers a decent health care plan. Or maybe the work that can be found is absent of meaning and fails to be challenging or rewarding.

Or the concern is that this person seems to have so little in her life that she is passionate about. Or that person seems existentially lonely or stuck.
It’s not only young people who face these challenges, for sure, but I would argue that it is an epidemic for this generation. These realities bring deeper meaning to John Buehrens observation that those who come to us aren’t fleeing the Methodist church. They are escaping the mall and the hollow disappointment of contemporary culture and society.

In considering this, it may be helpful to consider another great escape. The Biblical Exodus has something to teach us about the dangers, toils, and snares of living passively under the heavy hand of an empire. Of the Exodus, Desmond Tutu famously wrote,
Liberation is costly. Even after the Lord had delivered the Israelites from Egypt, they had to travel through the desert. They had to bear the responsibilities and difficulties of freedom… They complained that their diet was monotonous. Many of them preferred the days of bondage and the fleshpots of Egypt. We must remember that liberation is costly. It needs unity.
Indeed, as one reads the story of the Exodus one discovers that as the Hebrews crossed the desert there was complaining, infighting, a discomfort with the demands of community, a difficulty living into their newly won freedom, and even nostalgia for the certainties of enslaved life. Egypt had been an empire. But, it had at least provided a bit of daily bread, a powerful army for protection, and some cheap amusements to keep the Hebrews passive.

The mall and the American Empire do the same. It is time for an American Exodus. Our role will be to serve and assist the fugitives. To educate in the ways of community. To help people to fully claim their freedom. To offer creative alternatives for living life. To come together and create opportunities to live meaningfully and joyfully.

How to bring about such an American Exodus is beyond the scope of my comments this morning. Over the coming months I will preach several more times on the subject of empire and arguing that it is correct to understand ourselves as the subjects of empire. The implications are significant.