Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Sermon: "Secrecy and Sin" (Delivered 8-11-13)

The reading this morning is excerpted from an article by Daniel Ellsberg entitled Secrecy and National Security Whistleblowing.

Between 1968 and 1971, I repeatedly broke a solemn, formal promise that I had made in good faith: not to reveal to any “unauthorized persons” information that I received through certain channels and under certain safeguards collectively known as the classification system.

I had signed many secrecy “oaths,” or contractual agreements, over the years… All of them were blanket promises never to give any information that was identified as safeguarded or secret – as ”classified” – to a person who did not have a proper “security clearance” for it and moreover, explicitly authorized by higher authority to receive it.

Implicit in my promises not to reveal such information to unauthorized persons was that I would obey this commitment no matter what this information might be:

–even if it revealed evidence of official lies, crimes, planning for wars in violation of ratified treaties or the US Constitution, violations or planned violations of laws made by the US Congress;

–even if the unauthorized persons or agencies were officials of the legislative and judicial branch who vitally needed the information to carry out their constitutional functions and had a legitimate right to learn the truth;

–even if an election, congressional investigation, or vote that decided issues of war and peace might be affected by public ignorance or by my silence and obedient lies about the government’s secret actions and plans;

–and even if countless people had died and were continuing to die because the information was being wrongfully withheld by my own colleagues and superiors under a policy of secrecy and deception.

That is how I was meant to understand those promises. And for many years, I followed the rules. Of course, they were not explicitly spelled out in these terms in the papers I signed, nor were they told to me in briefings. If they had been, they would have given me a good deal of pause, to say the least.


In the “national security” area of the government – the White House, the departments of state and defense, the armed services, and the “intelligence community,” along with their contractors – there is less whistleblowing than in other departments of the executive branch or in private corporations. This despite the frequency of misguided practices and policies within these particular agencies that are both more well-concealed and more catastrophic than elsewhere, and thus even more needful of unauthorized exposure.

As a former insider I can attest to psychological dimensions of this [secret keeping] behavior that seem rarely to have been discussed…   In my experience, the psychological stakes for officials in keeping their commitment to keep secrets – even what appear to be “guilty” secrets that not only preclude democratic accountability but endanger the welfare of many people – go beyond careerist calculations of keeping a job or possible punishments for disobedience.

What is most feared by most prospective secret-tellers… is social isolation, ostracism, [and] exile, if they reveal the secrets of the group. If they are found out, they can expect… the loss of friends and relationships, more or less irrevocably, as well as loss of job and career…

Humans are herd animals. The threat of expulsion from a group on which their well-being and self-regard depends will keep them participating in (or helping to conceal) behavior they would abhor in the absence of that threat.  Socialization in the practice of keeping their organization’s secrets gradually blinds them to moral ambiguities or conflicts that might earlier have given them pause…

Some of the biggest new stories in recent months have involved the Obama administration’s policies and practices of secret keeping and information gathering.  Even as I speak today the court martial trial of Bradley Manning is in its sentencing phase.  Manning was acquitted on the charge of aiding the enemy, a crime punishable by death, but was found guilty on more than a dozen other charges and faces as many as ninety years in prison.  Manning’s trial comes three years after he was arrested for leaking voluminous amounts of classified information including sensitive diplomatic communications as well as videos of US airstrikes against civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Even as I speak today the saga of Edward Snowden continues to play itself out.  Earlier this summer Snowden spent several weeks in the international terminal of a Russian airport while trying to negotiate for asylum in some nation that will accept him.  Snowden is wanted by our government for leaking information about our nation’s surveillance practices both in regards to accessing the emails and phone calls of American citizens as well as communications of our closest allies.  While some have branded Manning and Snowden as traitors and criminals, others have called them courageous whistleblowers, heroes of truth, and defenders of civil liberties.

As Unitarian Universalists, our movement has a fascinating history of challenging government secrecy.  In the late 1960s, Daniel Ellsberg, who had access to classified government documents through his work for the Rand Corporation, began to leak documents to the New York Times that revealed that Congress and the American public were being lied to about the Vietnam War.  Later, Ellsberg provided these documents to Mike Gravel, a United States Senator from Alaska and a Unitarian Universalist.  Gravel entered more than 4,000 pages of classified documents related to the Vietnam War into the public record during a subcommittee meeting he chaired and Ellsberg tried to find a press willing to publish these documents.  Beacon Press, owned by the Unitarian Universalist Association, agreed to publish these documents which became known as The Pentagon Papers.  Before publication Beacon Press’s editor received an intimidating phone call at home from President Richard Nixon himself.  After publication J. Edgar Hoover tried to intimidate our religion by ordering the seizure of the UUA’s financial records.  To this day, our denomination brags about our role in publishing The Pentagon Papers, highlighting it as a proud moment in our history.  Every few years Daniel Ellsberg and Mike Gravel are guests of honor at the UUA General Assembly where they are regarded as inspiring heroes of our faith.

I was not surprised at all to learn a few weeks ago that the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that the surveillance practices of the NSA that were revealed in the Snowden leaks are in violation of the first, fourth, and fifth amendments of the Constitution of the United States.


I’m willing to bet that none of the members of this congregation have come here this morning debating whether or not to leak classified government documents that have come into your possession.  (If you do find yourself receiving asylum, I will come and visit you, especially if it’s someplace nice.)  However, I am willing to bet that most of us have had the experience of being told a secret that has made us uncomfortable or of being asked to keep a confidence that doesn’t feel quite right.  I’m willing to bet that we’ve all run up against secrets, against information that’s been kept from us, and have had to contend with issues of trust that have come up as a result.  We’ve all had to wade into murky waters of secrecy, confidentiality, and anonymity.  This morning, I’m less interested in delving deeply into the stories of Snowden and Manning, the NSA and the Obama Administration, and more interested exploring concepts of privacy and secrecy, confidentiality and anonymity, as they relate to our lives, to our communities, and to our faith identities.  And, as we figure out what these mean to us in an ethical and a religious sense, our thinking about these larger issues cannot help but be informed and shaped as a result.

I would like you to consider two overly generalized statements.  First:  It has been my experience that Unitarian Universalists tend to be very concerned with privacy.  I think the reason this is the case has something to do with our theology.  Not all Unitarian Universalists believe in a deity, but even those that do, even those UUs who have a strong belief in God, don’t generally imagine God as a cosmic voyeur.  The idea of God as a “peeping tom” – I take offense to that term – tracking our actions and keeping a log of our thoughts is off-putting and disturbing.  Other religious traditions institutionalize their notion of the divine as all-knowing and ever-watching.  Some religious traditions set an expectation of regular confession, the sharing of private information with a religious authority.  In my role as a Unitarian Universalist minister I do act as confessor from time to time, but I also understand that people will choose to keep some things absolutely private.  In some religious traditions, members of the church present their tax returns and bank statements to the church elders or the clergy for review and then are told what they are expected to give as a tithe.  Let’s just say I doubt that would go over very well in this church.

Overly generalized statement number one:  It has been my experience that Unitarian Universalists tend to be very concerned with privacy.  Here’s the second overly generalized statement:  It has been my experience that Unitarian Universalists tend to be very concerned with transparency.  This is certainly the case with Daniel Ellsberg and Mike Gravel and the editors at Beacon Press and others of their ilk who insist that citizens have the right to access information that concerns them.  My colleague Marilyn Sewell has written provocatively about this dynamic, pointing out that we’re a religious movement that has institutionalized our distrust of power.  Of all the church parking lots in the city, ours is the one where you’re most likely to see a “Question Authority” bumper sticker.  There is, perhaps, a good reason for this.  One need only to look the damage caused by government secrecy, or by secret keeping within the Catholic Church, or by corporate secrecy in order to justify an attitude of skepticism, vigilance, and distrust.

But, I want to ask, how do these issues of privacy and secrecy play out within the communities to which we belong?  What does privacy mean in community?  How do confidentiality, anonymity, and secrecy impact the communities to which we belong?

When I think about privacy there are a few different images that come to mind.  The first image I think of is a child maybe eight or nine or ten years old who begins to assert the right to privacy.  Maybe a sign appears on the bedroom door:  “My room.  Keep out!”  Maybe a diary is labeled secret and hidden underneath a pillow.  Maybe there is a secret treasure box whose contents are not to be known by another living soul.  What I’m describing would seem to be a universal impulse.  We would insist that there is a right to some degree of privacy.

Another image that comes to mind when I think of the word private, is that of the lowest military rank.  The term, as I understand it, originated hundreds of years ago and indicated a conscript or volunteer, a person pulled from the ranks of private citizens in order to serve in the military, as opposed to a professionally trained soldier.  But what is interesting to me and what I would want to point out is that the rank of “private,” as I understand it, is also without authority, lacking the ability to command or control, and lacking the formal responsibilities for others that comes along with being a sergeant or lieutenant, a captain or a general.  What I’m getting after here – and I understand that this is a play on words – is the sense that what is private is what isn’t in a position to influence anyone else.

We talk of some people – politicians, civic leaders, members of the clergy – as public figures.  This is a way of saying that certain details of our personal lives are not considered private.  Our positions carry with them the expectation of certain values and virtues and responsibility and trustworthiness, and our larger lives are supposed to model and embody those expectations.  Our lives are said to be influential.  I recently read a news item about the California mega-church pastor Rick Warren, one of America’s most recognizable religious leaders.  He recently returned to the pulpit after a four month absence following the suicide of his 27 year-old son.  He delivered a sermon called, “How to Get Through What You’re Going Through,” which was about his and his family’s experience of loss and grief and how his Southern Baptist faith was a source of comfort and healing.  I mention this because as I read the news item I was struck by just how public this man’s tragedies and trials and tribulations are, and how public they have to be, because he is in a position where his life is supposed to influence others.

Privacy, I’m suggesting, has one meaning constitutionally speaking, and another meaning in terms of community.  In terms of community, privacy is what doesn’t influence anyone else.

In community, confidentiality has to do with relationships of trust and faithfulness.  Confidentiality has to do with how information is managed.  Sometimes within this church our small groups (Covenant Groups, the Men’s Group or Women’s Group, the parenting group, maybe an adult religious education class that deals with a personal topic) may decide to set an expectation of confidentiality among the participants.  A participant within these groups might say something that feels safe to share within the small group but might embarrass them if it was announced to the entire congregation.  Confidentiality means that information is entrusted to others with the expectation that this information will be treated with care and respect.  As a minister, lots and lots of things are shared with me confidentially.  Spiritual and emotional challenges, along with the myriad of other challenges that people face.  Stories of shame, embarrassment, regret, and pain.  Sensitive personal information.  Confidentiality is not the same thing as secret keeping, however.  For example, I am a mandated reporter if I know or suspect that someone is planning to hurt themselves or hurt others.  That is not a limit to confidentiality; it is a natural extension of confidentiality.  There is a greater trust, a greater faithfulness, that would be violated by keeping silent and doing nothing while someone is in immediate risk of being harmed.  I think of the silences of the Catholic sex abuse scandals.  Secrets were kept that resulted in lives being shattered.  A further result of such secrets being kept was that a greater sense of confidence, trust, and faithfulness was shattered as well.  Confidentiality always results in the preservation of a larger sense of trust.

Anonymity involves the utter absence of trust.  In the larger world, there are times when anonymity is necessary.  Those times usually signal a climate marked by fear and danger.  Anonymous tip lines exist for crimes because reporting a crime may put you in danger.  A journalist may not reveal his or her sources when those sources face the danger of retribution and retaliation.  Anonymity involves the absence of any sense of community.  Anonymity destroys community.  If you don’t believe me, go to the comment sections of a news website.  I recommend doing this if you feel your blood pressure is too low.  What you are likely to find is the Wild West – rants and diatribes, hate speech, slurs, epithets, personal attacks, nastiness, and embarrassments of spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

One of my friends had a blog.  He left the comments section open hoping to generate discussion.  Instead, he found his blog swimming in personal attacks, abusive language, personal agendas, and hate speech.  It was as if every troubled individual on the internet had invited himself to the party.  My friend said it was like he had posted a sign that said, “Please drive by and throw your trash on my lawn.”  My friend changed the settings on his blog, requiring commenters to provide a name and an email address.  All of a sudden, when people had to take responsibility for what they wrote, the conversation became healthier.  In community, anonymity invites the worst angels of our nature.

In last week’s worship service we heard Forrest Church’s definition of sin.  He said, “Sin is anything that divides us: within ourselves; against our neighbor; from the ground of our being.”  Secrets, I believe, function in the same way as sins.  Secrets function to divide, exclude, and separate.  They are powerful in that they give some people a feeling of power and a special insider status.  The power though is only the power to withhold information.  The special status is only the ability to exclude.  Secrets are inherently divisive.  Daniel Ellsberg writes that “wrong-doing virtually always requires both secrecy and lies, and further secrets and lies to protect the secrets and lies.”  Secrecy always involves a separation, a division, a sense of brokenness.

Our lives are complex.  Our relationships are complex.  Our families are complex.  Our communities are complex.  We all have a right to privacy, a choice of which thoughts, which opinions, which stories to keep private and which to reveal, to make known, to make public.  And then there are those fraught things somewhere in the middle between public and private.  In those matters we all carry the responsibility of speaking and not-speaking in ways that increase trust and strengthen faithfulness, and avoiding ways of speaking and not-speaking that separate and that divide.