Democracy in Tatters

August 17, 2014

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. Matthew 10:34; Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

I had lunch with an old and good friend yesterday. He is a European and dresses very well. I’ve known him nearly a decade and during that decade, he has pretty much worn the same clothes. The reason is that his clothes are of such high quality. They last. He has about five outfits for summer and five for winter and he changes them out into nice combinations. Yesterday when he arrived for lunch he was wearing a familiar shirt. A nice shirt. Great fabric. Great fit. And it had a big rip in it. I asked him why he was wearing a shirt with a big rip in it and he said exactly what I thought he would say. “I like this shirt.”

My title today is Democracy in tatters. It is ripped, like my friend’s shirt. It won’t take me long to convince you that democracy is a mess. All I have to do is say Congress. Or global capitalism. Or Ferguson. Or the Koch brothers and their extraordinary capacity to buy votes. Or remind you that 95% of all economic gains in the Us Since the great recession went to the top 1 per cent. Or remind you that the 400 richest Americans have as much wealth as all 41 million African Americans. When income inequality expands, democracy diminishes.

It is easy to convince people of all stripes that democracy is in tatters and looks like a beautiful shirt with a big rip in it, one close to the heart. You might want to fuss with me about another set of questions. Can democracy ever produce economic justice? Could we ever get enough people to agree, democratically, to redistribute wealth? And if not, why would we keep democracy around? Wouldn’t it be better to get some monarch or tyrant to redistribute wealth through taxation or some such fiat? Wouldn’t the redistribution of wealth bring people back around to democracy, sooner or later? That’s how democracy was born, right? In a rising tide that did lift all boats? Or, more troubling, can we ever stop or reverse climate change within the framework of democracy? Wouldn’t it be easier to have a monarch or tyrant require sustainability than to wait for people to decide to do it? Can the things some of us say we want ever happen democratically when not all of us want them?

Or take Judson as another example. We are in a capital campaign to keep this building afloat. We all agree we have to do that. But we also know that we as a congregation no longer own ourselves. Our budget of about a million dollars is about 700,000 in rental and foundation money. About 300,000 comes from us as our rent in this great goddess. By the way I have nicknamed the building Grazi, Prego, that great Italian compound of words. You say Grazi, meaning thanks. She responds, Prego, you’re welcome. I do think we should thank her much more than we do. Grazi. And hear her response. Prego, you’re welcome. There is a living thing in this building, like a soul or a smile. Anyway, we don’t own the building. The building actually makes us possible. When the capital campaign is over and done, 3 or 4 or 5 years from now, what will be most interesting is how much members of this democratic congregation contribute and how much outside money comes in to keep our spiritual kites flying. What will be interesting is how much of ourselves we are able to still own. Why? Because democracy and priesthood of all believers is centrally important to us. We always have to be careful to also own ourselves. We need to be able to continue to say thank you, and you’re welcome. Grazi Prego.

In the same way that democracy is threatened by a global economy gone global capital, we at Judson can be threatened by our rentals. Another matter – and do forgive me going governance and internal today people. It is August and most of us have been digesting these questions for a long time. They pertain to the democracy in tatters theme. This second matter is more interesting. Because we have a deep commitment to a democratic structure – as CONGREGATIONALISTS or anti-clerics or spiritual democrats or sharing the priesthood of all people – we are also in a very interesting conversation here about governance. More than 80 people volunteer to run this place along with 11 staff people, not all of whom work full time. Because we have so expanded what we call space use – grazi Prego – or rentals, we have a very complex building program. We have ministries and then we have the ministry that graziprego does herself. She does most of the ministry around here. Often there is healthy tension – as there should be in anything democratic – about how to balance staff and volunteers, congregational members and building users. What is going to be fun in the coming year is to figure out how to minister – some would say administer—to these tensions. Volunteers of course want more control and more authority. They also want more staffing. I hope you all see how vital that tension can become.

So back to democracy. It may have a rip in its shirt. It may not be the best system to achieve the kinds of changes we need yesterday, like sustainability or restriction of emissions or health care for all. It may even be fatal to these issues. It may even get in the way of GraziPrego doing her work here. What I want to do now is talk with Jesus about how he is also a mess on these issues. You heard the two texts about peace, right. Two Texts on Conflict: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. Matthew 10:34; Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

These texts directly contradict each other. Welcome to the world of democracy. Conflict is inevitable, important and useful in democracy. What matters is the democratic citizen or democratic priest – because that is what we are – and how he or she manages conflict. Right now, we see literally thousands of people, if not millions, just dropping out of self-governance. They can’t take the hassle. They don’t see the point. They don’t want to be insulted. They don’t want to be bombed. Democracy is only possible for people who have enough executive function to self-govern. And that is where our ministry comes in. We help people get executive function – and we do so spiritually. Jesus gave us peace and Jesus gave us conflict. Grazi, we say. Prego, says Jesus. You are welcome.

Executive function includes things like memory. We remember things. We see things whole. We trust some data and we don’t trust other data. We trust some reporters and we don’t trust other reporters. Executive function also includes inhibitory capacity. It is mentally flexible. How do you know you have it? Because you can remember changing your mind or behavior recently. You know how to change. Also, executive function implies a kind of love or at least respect for the other. We don’t just hate the right wing. We have learned not to hate or hold grudges because we know that hating and holding grudges is like drinking rat poison and hoping the rat dies. We know that hate hurts us ore than it hurts the one we hate. We are educated people and we trust our education and I don’t mean just the three R’s. I mean the fourth 4 that trust us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves and to still be available to the polis or the community or the congregation. Executive function is a neuroscientific word and it is a good one. It means that you are the executive of you. The executor of you. That you are willing to take responsibililitly for what you do or say, don’t do or say. A more spiritual word would be composure or peace or willingness to enter conflict with hope, hope in yourself and hope in the other.

So since I really like this shirt and really like democracy – while knowing that it is broken and tattered – what do I do tomorrow? What are the short-term steps to long-term composure and democracy? Surely we have to stop testing children on the wrong things. That testing is an arrow to the heart of democracy, which depends on people who can think and solve problems and get along. Surely we have to learn to fight better. We have to learn not to take utter umbrage at people who insult us or 0—I love this phrase – are “confused” about something. Democracy and we ourselves will get much better if we stop being so afraid of conflict, so allergic to conflict, so self-protecting in the face of its obvious hurts and sneers.

We also have to enter the democratic debates, here at church or there in the office and in the voting booth, with a kind of canniness. Are we bringing our best and most composed and executive self to these situations? Or do we have what is curiously called an “agenda.” Isn’t it awful how that word has been demeaned as manipulation? Why wouldn’t we have an agenda? The question is not about our agenda so much as the quality of that agenda. Do we have a fun agenda for the building or do we just want to make money off her? Do we have a fun agenda for the Untied Sates or do we just want to show her off to the world?

Tocqueville remarked somewhere that democracy is a faith-based regime that holds its grip as long as people believe in it. Heschel said the same thing, “The act teaches you the meaning of the act. “ I’m not going to argue that democracy can be saved. I am not sure it can. I’m still looking for one gun control law to come out after the Newtown killings and guess what, it hasn’t. I do want you to like its shirt. I do want you to practice some kind of hope in it, a hope that goes like this. Some say seeing is believing, I say believing is seeing. I want you to think of stories as different than just conflict and swords, even though Jesus warned us quite fully.

The author Ursula Le guin may help. She argues that there is a gladiatorial view of fiction that obsessively focuses on conflict. Conflict is just one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in a human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, and changing. There are other stories like the simple hope that something is going to happen. Something may be birthing. There can be such a thing as a story in which there is no enemy. Rather the story’s forward movant resolves a struggle towards light, understanding, experience, wisdom. A character makes a decision goes on a journey. To say that something is going to happen is to say that things change. Opportunity for change must exist. Due to the overwhelming significance of the question, what am I living for, we often shrink from asking it…. how inadequate we feel before the answer.

Desire can create movement. Desire is prompted by lack, the sense that something is missing or out of balance. We can desire democracy and create another kind of story, one that is not just the gladiators having it out with each other. That kind of story does have tension: the Character has to ask himself why continue? Why not surrender or go back? This week, we have had a very sad collective experience. Both Republicans and Democrats are staying awake wondering why Robin Williams left us. I want to go into that sadness as a kind of story for us. I hope you won’t be mind if I quote Annie Lamott extensively. You may not know that she grew up as a neighbor to RW.

“This will not be well written or contain any answers or be very charming. I won't be able to proof read it. It is about times like today when the abyss is visible and we cannot buy cute area rugs at IKEA to truck out the abyss. Our brother Robin fell into it yesterday. We are all staring at the abyss today. I called my Jesuit friend the day after the shootings in Newtown, stunned, flat, fixated, scared to death: "Is there any meaning in the deaths of twenty 5 and 6 year old children?" Tom said, "Not yet." And there is no meaning in Robin's death, except as it sheds light on our common humanity, as his life did. But I've learned that there can be meaning without things making sense. Here is what is true: a third of the people you adore and admire in the world and in your families have severe mental illness and/or addiction. I sure do. I have both. And you still love me. You help hold me up. I try to help hold you up. Half of the people I love most have both; and so do most of the artists who have changed and redeemed me, given me life. Most of us are still here, healing slowly and imperfectly. Some days are way too long. And I hate that, I want to say. I would much prefer that God have a magic wand, and not just a raggedy love army of helpers. Mr. Roger's mother told him when he was a boy, and a tragedy was unfolding that seemed to defy meaning, "Look to the helpers." That is the secret of life, for Robin's family, for you and me. I knew that those children at Sandy Hook were caught in God's loving maternal arms at the second each crossed over, and the teachers were, too. I believe the shooter was too, another child of God with severe mental illness, because God loves, period. But this is controversial. I know Robin was caught too, in both the arms of God, and of his mother, Laurie. I knew them both when I was coming up, in Tiburon. He lived three blocks away on Paradise drive. His family had money; ours didn't. But we were in the same boat--scared, shy, with terrible self esteem and grandiosity. If you have a genetic predisposition towards mental problems and addiction, as Robin and I did, life here feels like you were just left off here one day, with no instruction manual, and no idea of what you were supposed to do; how to fit in; how to find a day's relief from the anxiety, how to keep your beloved alive; how to stay one step ahead of abyss. We all thought after Newtown that gun control legislation would be passed, but no--not one new law. We think in the aftermath of Robin's death that there will be consciousness raising about mental health, but I doubt it. The shock and awe will pass, like it did after Phillip Seymour Hoffman's death. Unless...unless we take action. But what? I don't have a clue. Well, here's Glenn Close's astonishing organization to raise awareness and diminish the stigma of mental illness, where you can give OR receive help: Go there, OK?In Newtown, as in all barbarity and suffering, in Robin's death, on Mount Sinjar, in the Ebola towns, the streets of India's ghettos, and our own, we see Christ crucified. I don't mean that in a nice, Christian-y way. I mean that in the most ultimate human and existential way. The temptation is to say, as cute little believers sometimes do, Oh it will all make sense someday. The thing is, it may not. We still sit with scared, dying people; we get the thirsty drinks of water. This was at theologian Fred Buechner blog today: "It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life's story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others' lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present. If God is not present in those stories, then they are scarcely worth telling." Live stories worth telling! Stop hitting the snooze button. Try not to squander your life on meaningless, multi-tasking bullshit. I would shake you and me but Robin is shaking us now. Get help. I did. Be a resurrection story, in the wild non-denominational sense. I am.

Gravity yanks us down, even a man as stunning in every way as Robin. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can't be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity. You know how I always say that laughter is carbonated holiness? Well, Robin was the
ultimate proof of that, and bubbles are spirit made visible.

You see that Annie is trying the same thing I am trying with Executive Function or personal authority – yes authority is the ability to control yourself, not others – or composure. She is trying to make spirit visible by connecting to others in a spirit made visible way. She uses words. Some of use pictures. It doesn’t’ matter.

What matters is guarding our capacity to believe a little when a lot is thrown at us. What matters is a certain non-chalance in the face of mighty matters. St. Ignatius called this “indifference”, and by that he meant a lot of things don’t really matter and that we need to encourage indifference to most things. Martin Luther said that you could tell how faithful you were by how much you were able to laugh. I say that God needs to be your highest authority, authorizer, executive and legitimator. From there, you carry on.

I think you get the point: Wear the tattered shirt. Wear it proudly. Wear it indifferently. Wear it all the way to laughter, the place where the bubbles of the spirit are made visible, the place where the sword is laid down and the peace that passes understanding, even democratic understanding, is lifted up.

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