Monday, January 10, 2011

On Arizona: A Lament, A Plea, A Difficult Making Sense (Delivered 1-9-11)

It was my intention to speak about complexity. In a sentence, that sermon was going to be about one of the core characteristics that sets us apart as religious liberals, namely our awareness of life’s complexity, and about how we are called to respond to complex situations, problems, and realities in a way that isn’t simplistic, but instead maturely accepts the complexity of life.

Yesterday’s horrific events in Arizona cause me to take my words this morning in a different direction. I find myself shaken and saddened and angered by the attempted murder of United States Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a shooting that nearly killed the Congresswoman, and took the lives of six people:
Christina Taylor Green, a nine year old girl
The Honorable John Roll, a Federal judge appointed by President George H. W. Bush
Gabe Zimmerman, a congressional staffer with a bright future in public service
and three elders, Dorothy Morris, Dorwin Stoddard, and Phyllis Schneck
The shooting wounded an additional dozen people.

I believe it is irresponsible conjecture at this point for me to attempt to explain what led the young man to commit murder. We may know more. We may never really know. [As columnist James Fallows explains, ascribing motivation to assassination attempts is often a murky business.]

However, it is both responsible and necessary to speak about the climate in which Gabrielle Giffords’ appearance took place. Giffords was holding an event to connect with the voters she represents in Congress. The event is known as a “Congress on Your Corner” event. It is a type of event that members of Congress have begun to hold because of unruly, disruptive, and dangerous behavior at “Town Hall” meetings. Over the last few years, organized groups have taken to disrupting assemblies held by liberal and moderate politicians.

A classic “town hall” meeting looks a lot like our room. The person stands in front of an assembled group and interacts with the group as a whole. At a “Congress on Your Corner” event, individuals are supposed to file past the elected official in an orderly fashion and each individual is given the opportunity to ask a question or share a concern with the elected official one on one. In this way, a person who comes to the event with the goal of disrupting the entire event is supposed to be unable to do so. This type of event should probably be called “Congress in the Corner” because the threat of incivility and mob-like behavior has forced many members of congress to avoid holding public meetings. In this way, those who attempt to disrupt these meetings subvert the democratic process and violate the first amendment rights of orderly attendees.

The climate of which I speak is filled not only with disruptive behavior but with threats of violence and actual violence that together are a form of terrorism. We know that following the health care reform vote last spring that Giffords’ district office was vandalized as Sarah Palin tweeted that those who oppose health care should not retreat but reload. We know that Palin’s political action campaign published a map of the United States with crosshairs over twenty congressional districts and a list of members of congress to be “targeted” in the midterm election. Giffords was one of those put in the crosshairs. Though the midterm elections took place last November, the map was taken down off the Palin website after news of the shooting broke yesterday. Last spring, Giffords expressed that she felt this violent rhetoric constituted a real threat against her life.

Giffords’ opponent in the last November’s midterm election traded in disturbing imagery. His campaign photos depicted him dressed in camouflage and holding an assault rifle. His campaign events included invitations to come and fire an M16 with the candidate.

Last year, after Judge John Roll made a ruling involving immigrants, a conservative radio host took to the airwaves. Apoplectic about the judge’s ruling, he implored his listeners not to stand for it. The show’s listeners bombarded the judge with nasty phone calls. Those calls included death threats that forced Roll to be placed under the protective services of a U.S. Marshall.

The sheer amount of violent rhetoric endured by our elected representatives and public servants is deeply troubling. So too is the ready availability of lethal weapons and the ease with which troubled individuals acquire those weapons. Last summer a mentally ill individual took hostages at the offices of the Discovery Channel in Washington D.C. This man had become obsessed about certain issues of environmental concern and was demanding that the Discovery Channel create programs to promote his views. But, what is most troubling is that his behavior escalated over a period of years until it reached the point of violence, hostages, and police stand-offs. I fully expect that as more information becomes available we will find that the shooter in Arizona had a similar history of troubled behavior that escalated and escalated and included him going out and acquiring weapons. We live in a society that is incredibly lenient about gun ownership and incredibly ill-equipped when it comes to addressing signs of mental illness and intervening in the lives of individuals who demonstrate the potential for violent behavior.

And, what I had planned to say about complexity touches tangentially on this whole question of antisocial rhetoric and violent behavior. When I think about complexity, I think about a story a friend told me.

Before he accepted a position in another city, my friend was the minister of one of the most progressive Christian congregations in our metro area. My friend had been teaching a Bible study class at the church he served. The class incorporated the findings of the latest, cutting-edge Biblical scholarship – archeology, textual analysis, linguistics – and offered interpretations of Scripture that deviated from what most had assumed the text said and meant.

His was a church, like ours, in which new understandings and new wisdom were welcomed and accepted and expected. But, one day, a man in the class came by my friend’s office to speak to him. He expressed that the class was challenging him in a way that made him feel uncomfortable. “Look,” he said, “My life feels like it is in constant flux. It feels like the world is changing and I don’t know how to keep up. My company is constantly reorganizing and I’m just trying to hold on. Any day I could show up at work and find that I’ve been relocated to another city or worse. I feel like what is expected of me as a husband and a father is constantly shifting. Heck, when I buy a new phone the technology will be obsolete before I even figure out how to use the dang thing. I feel like the ground is moving under my feet. And, I thought that church could be the one solid, dependable, unchanging thing but I come to your class and I find out that everything I thought I knew about the Bible is wrong.”

My friend told me that this man wound up moving on to a more conservative Christian church at which new developments in Biblical scholarship were ignored and rejected. I don’t want to make too much out of this story. My friend’s congregation was full of people for whom the new wisdom did not pose an existential or spiritual crisis, but rather an opportunity. But, I want to ask us to hold the example of this man in our minds during our time together this morning.

Even though we do not seek out an unchanging, constant, and eternal theology, we can probably relate to the experience of a world that is complex, complicated, and confusing. We can relate to that experience of feeling that at least a part of our life is uncertain and in flux.

So, let me say at the outset that life’s complexity is often anxiety-producing and overwhelming. It is that exasperating complexity that often leads us to look for ways to simplify life. We look to the great Henry David Thoreau who urged his readers to “Simplify! Simplify!” We enjoy singing the famous Shaker hymn that begins, “’Tis a Gift to be Simple.” The urge to make our lives simpler is extremely powerful. But, it is important to remember that Thoreau urged simplicity in some facets of life in order to make space for complexity in life elsewhere. He dismissed the complexities of fashion and social propriety in order to embrace complex ethical discernment and to fully embrace the spiritual benefits of nature. The simplicity movement is a call to simplify our living, not our thinking.

My colleague in the Denver area, Nathan Woodliff-Stanley once delivered a sermon on liberal religious approaches to morality. “Life is complex,” Woodliff-Stanley declares, but harm is done when we try to face life’s problems in a simplistic way. Woodliff-Stanley states, “Religious liberals know that honestly facing the complexities and difficulties of life is a requirement for sound moral formation.”

He argues that a commitment to truth-seeking and honesty is an essential component of moral development. In his words,
A commitment to truthfulness often means asking questions or speaking truths that an authority-based morality may not like. As our whole nation is discovering, when political loyalty is valued more than truth-seeking and truth-telling, the results can be dangerous, even deadly.

Honesty and truth-seeking are not easy to practice, and they often begin with an awareness that we are not always honest or truthful. I believe that an ever-renewing commitment to honesty within ourselves is a far more powerful force for morality and redemption than is the fear of hell. A commitment to truthfulness means being willing to learn and grow and change. It means admitting when others… are right about something. And it means being honest about everything from our own abilities and limitations to the complexity and interconnectedness of the world in which we live.
In this quote we find that Nathan Woodliff-Stanley draws a line connecting complexity, honesty, truth-telling, and moral development. What exactly is this all about?

The connection between honesty and moral development is an easy connection to make. Earlier this week I was sent a video of a portion of last Sunday’s worship service at one of our Unitarian Universalist congregations in the San Francisco Bay Area. Last Sunday retired Navy Commander and Unitarian Universalist Zoe Dunning gave a testimonial in church about her work to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Dunning was actually selected to stand next to President Obama as he signed the repeal.

In her testimony, Dunning talked about the meetings she attended to persuade high ranking military officials to change their stance on this policy. And, she talked about the different arguments opponents of DADT employed. One argument was the argument about equality, about fair treatment for all. A second argument was based on practical economic considerations. It costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time to train a member of the military. It is a drain on resources to go through the process of discharging someone who is outed. Dunning mentioned that the military servicemen and women discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” included a number of skilled translators and linguists fluent in the languages of the Middle East and Afghanistan. Dunning talked about the tactical idiocy of discharging gay and lesbian translators when the military already has an insufficient supply of translators.

But, both of those arguments – the argument about equality and the argument about supply and demand – were weaker than her central argument. That argument had to do with the connection between truth-telling and morality. Zoe Dunning argued that those who serve in the military are expected to conduct themselves with integrity, that the institution is supposed to stand for the values of honor, courage, and commitment, and that a policy that tells people to lie undercuts those professed values in a profound way. It not only detracts from the honor of the individual who is told to lie but it detracts from the integrity of the entire institution. It is that way that truth-telling and honesty is wedded to moral formation. In the absence of telling the truth, morality grows deformed and distorted.

Morality is also intricately and intimately connected to complexity. When we deny the complexity of life and of our world we prevent ourselves from making wise moral choices. This month we are joining Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country in reading The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands, by Martha Regan, a journalist who has covered immigration for more than two decades. It is a short book. Although it is too short it begins to convey the complexity of immigration. She looks at the issue through the lens of international economics, local economics, geopolitical history, environmentalism, human rights, the Native American experience, faith, and the experiences of ranchers and border patrol agents.

Last month our Second Sunday forum speaker was the President of the Immigrant Justice Advocacy Movement. During the Q+A session she was asked if she could change one part of the immigration laws, what would she choose to change? Her answer was refreshing for its candor and its wisdom. “The issue too complex to give a simple answer,” she replied.

We live in a world of three word sound bites because four word sound bites prove too distracting. Simple answers to the complex social and economic issues of our times (a globalized economy, immigration, health care, or whatever) are lies at best and morally bankrupt at worst. Simple answers lead to unhealthy obsessions, obsessions based on half-truths, bold-faced lies, and moral deformities.

The irony here is also the opportunity. In twenty minutes I cannot explain the roots of hatred in the human heart. In twenty minutes I cannot offer solutions to impossibly complex issues. In twenty minutes I cannot offer the solution to a politics dominated by violent fantasies.

In our tradition, in our Unitarian Universalist tradition, the work does not end when the service ends. In our tradition, my words are not the final word. Rather, the work is yours to take up and move forward. It depends on your discernment. It for you to think about and to discuss.

And, as you do, remember that honesty, complexity, and morality are forever wedded, each one to the others.

Speak the truth, because morality withers in the absence of honesty.

Embrace complexity, because simple answers are the beginning of delusions.

Find a morality that does not shrink from the truth and does not deny the complexity of our lives.

In tragedy, satisfying answers are often elusive.