Justice of the Peace

Ancient Testimony ~ Mark 12:38-44

November 08, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

If Gallup is right, and 40% of Americans describe themselves as conservative (up from 37% in 2008) and 36% as moderates and 20% as Liberals and the rest in various forms of indecision, then some people had better learn to live like the majority and some like the minority. This week was a big week, politically, with gay marriage being defeated in Maine and the biggest spender winning in New York, in the mayoral election and on the baseball field; shifts in Jersey and Virginia; and now, just last night, round one on the health care bill.  The Stupak Amendment, banning federal funding for abortions, also passed.  The Roman Catholic Bishops are responsible for the Stupak amendment, throwing into grand relief the issues cited by the Gallup Poll.  The Catholic Bishops also kept immigration out of the bill and did quite a few other things that are good for women; pre-existing conditions, like a C Section (duh) or breast cancer are automatically covered, for example.  All sides get to feel the victim this morning: the Right because of the health care bill and the Left because of the abortion prohibition. 

I have little interest in preaching about these politics today.  Don’t get me wrong: political decisions are a very holy thing.  It is pretty hard to achieve your full humanity, much less your full spiritual humanity, when you can’t pay for the dialysis or the abortion.  As Gail Collins says in this morning‘s Times, when it comes to politics, I generally try to figure out where Joe Lieberman is going and head the other way.  And I worked with Joe in New Haven, when we were both young organizers.  He wasn’t always such a highly paid hypocrite or such a religiously compromised Jew.  He is breaking my heart.  He gives new meaning to forgetting who you are in politics.

As holy as politics are, there is something even more holy, which is the thread and fiber and fabric that bind us together when we differ.  Justices of the peace, in small towns everywhere, understand.  They preside over marriages and evictions, what some might call the small and local stuff of politics.  What JPs know is that the small stuff is often the big stuff, properly packaged.  A good JP finds the thread and follows its grail to the optimal, not the perfect.  Compromises are not unholy in and of themselves.

As holy as politics are, there is something even more holy, which is connecting to the other, especially as that other becomes an antagonist.  For the Right, that may mean coming to terms with the fact that there is a multiracial President of the United States.  For the Left, that may mean coming to terms with our otherwise partners, the Roman Catholic Bishops.  The most rabid progressive has to admit that they understand that some Americans are afraid of the government running more things than it already runs.  The most rabid non-progressive has to admit that there needs to be a little government.

When politics meet the local, the real, the threaded moral and spiritual life, and are placed in economic context, justice has a chance of meeting peace, and not just in the courtroom. 

Thomas Friedman makes the same point in his very interesting op-ed from October 31.  I have printed some of it in our bulletins because I think it showcases the method I am suggesting here.  That method is that we infuse politics, the negotiation of differences, with morality and economics because they are both important contexts for the negotiation of differences.  Friedman faults the Obama administration for not having a deeper narrative.  He recommends the narrative of nation-building, which is a very small narrative, but at least it is a narrative.

Moral people can join the goal and narrative of nation-building because it is something that is transpartisan.  Not bipartisan, but transpartisan.  It also takes the Left out of the terribly problematic position of either not having a values-based politics or having one that is too broad or vague to be commanding.  When James Carville quips that the Left has the paralysis of analysis and that some of us think the pentagon is a six-sided building, I fear he is right.  Is there global justice or peace in the nation-building narrative?  I think there can be.  Nation-building may be small, potentially narrow as a good narrative, but, again, at least it is a narrative.  Plus, why not challenge the Right at their mean but patriotic heart?  Right now they are hoping that Obama will fail, which is to say that our nation will fail, so that they will win.  Why not challenge them at the heart of the patriotic question, even with its narrow nationalism?  Why not get rid of the language of them and us and declare that we are all one nation, for better or worse?  Since we are stuck with each other, why not stick with each other at the level of the larger narrative?  Dialogue has clearly failed.  What about a joint mission, instead of trying to agree?  Beyond that, what is wrong with nation-building?  How can we possibly keep the powerful from destroying the widow’s houses if the nation becomes weak because it fails to negotiate its differences?  Finally, does nation-building not constitute a moral principle that allows both political and economic questions to be framed by it?  Nation-building takes the flat out of flattened politics.  It allows a context in which all, including the widow and the scribe, the small and the large, can negotiate.  Instead of push and pull, tug and tug, we are embraced by something larger than ourselves.  This is what we mean by having a moral principle, even if it is not a perfect moral principle.

Nation-building does not mean being the best nation or the most perfect nation.  We could settle a lot of fights by trying to achieve a more perfect, not a perfect, union.

It builds our nation for immigrants to have health insurance.  It builds our nation for women to have freedom of choice.  It builds our nation to regulate financial institutions.  It builds our nation to have a public health care option.  I am practicing the argument on you.  These are also the right things to do.  But in case you haven’t noticed, we have lost the “rightness” argument.  Compassion is a practical virtue as well as being a moral virtue.  I want abortion to be paid for.  Paying for abortions would build our nation because anything that increases the freedom and capacity of women builds nations.  I want justice and peace, locally and internationally.  A strong United States is good for the world, especially if its strength has that moral integrity in which its strength is not the only strength possible.  A weak United States is bad for the world. 

I have said all I want to say about politics, morality, and the economy.  I want to turn now to what you might call the Arts and Leisure page of this sermon.  We used to call it the Women’s page.  Many of us live lives that are less than they could be because we don’t have our own master narrative that masters ourselves.  Many of us have a master narrative but it is not one we really say out loud, we just obey it.  It is the scribal narrative.  We want to walk around in the market in long robes.  Or at least with good boots.  We want the best seats in the synagogues, or at least at the show.  We devour widows’ houses while saying long prayers.  Or at least get a weekly manicure at the feet of a Chinese woman.  A possible alternative personal narrative is to give out of our poverty, like the widow with her mite.  For me that poverty is all these years of failing to make a difference in politics.  The Stupak Amendment joins Joe Lieberman in breaking my heart.  It is not a political matter for me.  It is an insult, an affront, a stupidity, and a knife in my back.  The defeat is as much a moral and spiritual matter as it is a political matter.  When I use this strong language, what is it in me that is insulted?  Not just the long robes and good boots I’d like to wear.  It is something about being hated and dismissed, ignored, unobserved.  It’s shame at my own religion being used to create a theocracy instead of a democracy in this great nation.  That is embarrassing, and not just politically but also theologically.  It is like what happened to me recently in a New Sanctuary battle inside the movement, where I realized that a “boy” Senior Minister of a participating church would never be treated the way I was.  Details don’t matter.  The pain does.  So listening to each other’s pain and expressing the pain we feel—while not bowing down to it—is the place I personally would start.  The widow gave what little she had, not out of her wealth but out of her poverty.  Jesus makes a big point about this little story: she is the one who will receive his praise.

When we get a little distance on our political fight with the Right, and how their meanness seems to be winning, we have a chance to relook at the great land in which we live.  Yesterday we had a memorial service here for Ray Giacometti Alden, the son of the Rev. Alden, who was the pastor here at Judson in the Thirties and Forties.  He was also the first Italian pastor, and you know that mattered more then than it might now.  Ray grew up in this church and went on to be a collector of American folk music.  He preserved songs.  As he was dying, he asked me to come up to visit him in Croton, which I did.  He wanted to know if he could be buried at Judson, where he had lived as a child, and he also wanted me to know he was not a believer.  I said, “Ray, come on home.”  Anyway, the service went on for two and a half hours, with rare folk music being sung by people from North Carolina to Maine.  Ray was a believer, just not in the same thing his father believed. 

When I get excited about joining an economic and moral as well as political nation, the music helps me.  Chuck Berry helps me.  The Mamas and the Papas help me, as do the people.  Just the people.  Last week I saw two octogenarians grilling kielbasa outside on the Long Island Sound.  They were having a good time.  They were like the guy playing the blues in Washington Square Park wearing a security uniform.  I am for nation-building, especially if it includes Elvis and kielbasa, music and heartbreak, the great blues of security.

The Fort Hood disaster reminds us that we are one people, with our shared pain and exasperation at what in the name of God happened.  Nation-building could help us come together without the disaster but with the shared exasperation.  That would be my goal and the goal of most Justices of the Peace.  We could try to become not the best nation or even the greatest nation but a good and fair nation, a more perfect nation.  The widow’s mite could become our might, and it would be enough.  Even God might be glad.

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