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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, September 5, 2010

A Sermon on Religion and Politics

Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.

&mdash Japanese proverb

One of my favorite bloggers is the Canadian Buddhist Marnie Louise Froberg. In a recent posting she addressed Glen Beck’s grand rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the 28th of August, which was, of course, the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech.

She wrote of Mr Beck, “He seems to be a real put upon dude. Not only is he.” Then she writes a “person of color”, which she crosses out, “poor,” which she crosses out, “living in a third world country,” which she crosses out, “female,” which she crosses out, “of a minority faith,” which she crosses out, “homeless,” which she crosses out… “living in an impoverished area of the country,” which she crosses out, “lacking access to education,” which she crosses out, “speaking with an accent unusual for TV personalities,” which she crosses out, “an immigrant without documentation,” which she crosses out, “a refugee,” which she crosses out, “homosexual,” which she crosses out, “transgendered,” which she crosses out. Okay, I hope you get the idea. Actually she names about a dozen other circumstances that can lead to marginalization and then crosses out. Marnie can be quite systematic when she’s on a roll. Finally she stops, I can only assume takes a great gulp of air, and adds, “C’mon, I’m really trying to get at what this fellow’s issue is all about.”

Her view, which I generally share, was summarized by the late Robert Byrd’s neologism “Glenbeckistan,” describing people whose task it seems is to “maintain the status quo, at the behest of huge corporate interests play(ing) upon the fear and paranoia of economically disenfranchised white people by scapegoating other marginalized groups.” Mr Beck is one of a long line of demagogues, just to name some in this country ranging from those who scapegoated the Irish, the Germans, the Jews, the Catholics, the blacks and now the Hispanics and Muslims for ills real and perceived experienced by the majority population. Marnie draws it together succinctly. “This divide and conquer strategy has been used for decades, if not centuries, by the powerful to maintain and consolidate their ultra-privileged condition.” Actually it has been so for a very long time.

For the sake of argument, let’s just stipulate things are pretty rough out there in the world, in the country and right here in River City. And, but, in fact, it always has been so. The veneer of comfort and reliability in human existence has always been just that, a veneer. Before the great recession most all of us were three paychecks from the street. Healthcare has never been seen as a right. And a good education for everyone was more honored in the breach than in the hospital. Racial discrimination has been America’s dirty open secret, as has been the marginalization of women, GBLT people, or anyone who can be perceived as outside the mainstream. Things are rough and most people have a hard go of it. What is more apparent right now, is how much poverty there is and how close we all are to it. A very long time ago the good rabbi Jesus famously said, “The poor will always be with us.” And so far he’s been right.

Probably the real question, at least for those of us within communities of faith, is “What does this sense of resentment real and imagined have to do with our gathering together into our places of worship?” What is it we’re worried about, whether the put upon majority or the hard pressed minorities? Is there a spiritual analysis that actually can help us?

I don’t particularly want to beat on poor Mr Beck. But he kind of sets himself up. In addition to his identification with the put upon white guy coupled with such frankly unseemly disdain for anyone else who might be perceived as downtrodden, he has made some interesting assertions about the place of religion in the social sphere. He only plays a theologian on television, so I don’t want to hold him to any rigorous standards. Still, he has made some statements that many people in our larger community resonate with, but which speak to such a perverse view of religion and society that I feel compelled to speak out.

Right now his big target is liberation theology. But not long ago Mr Beck had a less narrow target. He took it upon himself to admonish his fans to quit churches that advocated “social justice.” I have thoughts on that. I understand he’s a Mormon, and I admit I’m not clear on their theology of social justice. But as a denomination derived from Christianity, I suspect Mormon’s actually think people are supposed to watch out for each other. I know they watch out for those within their own community. And I bet they also try to do right by their neighbors, as well. Those specific acts of compassion and care, dare I say, are parts of a theology, which calls for some kind of social justice.

Now maybe Mr Beck is right in being worried about people doing this sort of thing. There should be no doubt it is something dangerous, reaching out to help someone, particularly people who are suffering under the system in place. As a real Christian theologian Dom Helder Camera once caustically observed, “When I feed the poor they call me a saint, but when I asked why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.” If you’re involved in helping the poor, which leads a person to actually notice the poor as something other than an annoyance, questions about the whole thing, particularly “why” rise as naturally as an out breath follows an in breath.

And, of course, it is a scary question for many. There are reasons Mr Beck says, don’t go there. Notice the Archbishop didn’t even posit an analysis. Just asking the questions made him suspicious, even dangerous. There have always been voices like Mr Beck’s trying to distract us from looking at what is actually going on.

And this is what is going on. Peter Phillips in his top twenty-five censored stories of 2007, reports in the United States at the end of 2001, 10% of the population owned 71% of the wealth and the top 1% owned 38%. On the other hand, the bottom 40% owned less than 1% of the nation's wealth. Those who mention these uncomfortable facts are currently accused of fomenting class war. Well, you know, that war has been going on for a long time, and if you think about the numbers, you know who is winning. But, in fact, as dreadful as that distribution of wealth in this country is, I think that’s more a symptom of a deeper problem than anything else.

And, I don’t think Glenn Beck is on any payroll, or that he gathers with a group clad in black robes in some cave somewhere plotting to distract the American people from the real issues. The motive is simple enough. He is afraid. He preaches fear. And he preaches a cause for this fear. Which is the other. This simple misdirection, this looking for the problem in someone with another accent or another shade of skin color or who loves people of the same gender or who has slipped past borders trying to get a job allows the whole rotten system to continue.

Here’s the secret Mr Beck and his ilk don’t want you to know. It is an open secret, of course. There is a negative way to state it, and a positive way. Negatively, all those years ago Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo said it. We’ve met the enemy, and he is us. And here’s the positive way. There is no other. We are one family. It is all us, all the time.

Just this, just you, just me, just us: one thing. We get this, and the door is thrown wide open. We do this, and I suggest we discover a different shade of wrong, and a new shade of right. Here we see each individual is precious and unique and never, ever to be repeated. And, here we see we are all connected so deeply, so profoundly that the only appropriate metaphor is that we are all family. We see we’re all one family, we see what is going on around us, and then our hearts compel us in certain directions.

From this insight we begin to analyze what we see going on. My Zen teacher’s Zen teacher Robert Aitken died this summer, a great loss to many of us. Among the things I cherish about him is a picture from a political demonstration he attended some years ago. He’s already an old man there, but he’s smiling widely, wearing a silly hat, and he’s holding a small sign. It reads, “The system stinks.” The system, and I’ll define that in a moment does not understand that individuals are precious and we are all one family. Both. Instead here's the situation on the ground that we must deal with.

The prevalent ideologies socialism, capitalism and its currently popular variation libertarianism; are all informed at core by false perspectives, or, rather inadequate perspectives. So, the cluster of socialist views, in their varying degrees, ignore the need for the individual to be creative and free in action. While the cluster of capitalist and libertarian perspectives ignore in their varying degrees our profound need for each other and our deep familial connection.

Instead of supporting the individual and the family, they hold to one or the other, ignoring the necessary balance, and through a one sided view making those true things into false gods. Let me tell you some hard truths. There will never be a worker's paradise and there is no unseen hand of some capitalist god righting wrongs through the motion of markets. These are lies told into our hearts, which we would do well to expunge as quickly as possible.

Revolution means to turn around. And I’m suggesting a revolution. Throw off the shackles around your heart that enslave you, and enslaves us. Don’t let fear run your lives. Don’t let greed be your god, guarding your small treasure like a foolish dragon. Open your hearts and minds. And discover the real treasure, who you and we really are and what a world that can be. There is no community without individuals and there is no individual without community. Any system that doesn’t take both into account is going to do bad things. The Russians lived under one such bad system for a long time. We live under another.

Instead of looking at that and trying to figure out small and large issues that arise from such a fragmented view, Mr Beck and his ilk would have us look in completely wrong places for the problem, fanning fears of the other, scapegoating, trying to distract us from asking the real questions. Such as why are some in our family treated like kings while others are made into peasants, why do some get great educations and others next to none, or even none, why do some get healthcare and others do not, why are some in our family so poor they’re actually starving? The litany of ill is long, very, very long. The system stinks. So, why aren’t we trying to do something about it?

Here’s an idea. Think revolution. Mr Beck has turned from trashing social justice to trashing liberation theology. Well, this is liberation theology: take care of those who are at the bottom of our social structure and you will take care of everyone. Find the ways to empower, to educate to provide healthcare, to make sure no one is left behind, and then you have something worth celebrating.

Now, if Mr Beck is trying to get us to look in the wrong direction, by focusing on the other as the problem, what should we pay attention to? What is the revolutionary view? It’s actually not that hard. There are two ways of cultivating our insight, of opening our hearts. It is the inner look. Coming here on a Sunday is part of that. Participating in projects like our chalice circles, our small group ministry, where we are called to attend to ourselves and each other can be critical. As are the various disciplines we’re bringing into our congregations like Insight meditation or Zen. That sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention is enormously valuable.

And then there is the outward look. It is just as important. Not more important, just as important. It is found in action. And the major action we're called to by our relationship with the world is the alleviation of suffering. It’s the family project. Addressing the human need to work, to have adequate food, clothing and shelter, to have access to education and health care, to foster dignity for everyone as they are, are the tasks at hand. To give everyone a fair shake, and to try hard to leave no one behind. That’s the project. And like on to it is to care for our planet and to find ways to walk gently on this good earth.

Liberation theology arose in Central America when Catholic theologians began to question why such concentration of wealth among so few, and why so many suffered so terribly. Just that question. They began to search their own tradition for answers and for direction. And they saw that the person they think of as God on earth, came not as a king but as a peasant, as a carpenter. They found particular wisdom in what is called the Sermon on the Mount. And, most of all, they found in Mary, another peasant who would be Jesus’ mother, an exemplar of the lowly being raised on high.

In particular they looked at her song, which rose, in that story, unbidden from her lips when she learned that she was to be the mother of God, and they saw something. Perhaps we can, as well. I don’t think it that hard for any of us, whatever our faith, to listen to these words with open hearts, and not see the roadmap to the true revolution, to the realm of God, to the true home for the family to which we all belong.

My soul proclaims the greatness of God, my spirit rejoices in God’s saving grace.
Who has looked with favor upon this lowly servant.
From this day forward all generations will call me blessed: you, o god, have done great things for me,
and holy is your name.
You have mercy on those who stand in your presence in every generation.
You have shown the strength of your arm, and have scattered the proud in their certainties.
You have cast down the mighty from their thrones, and have lifted up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things, and the rich you have sent away empty.
You have come to the help of the family of God, for you have promised compassion and justice to all,
The promise you made to our ancestors, to Abraham and Sarah and their children, for all times.