The Democracy Principle

a sermon by Rev. Jill Cowie


This sermon lifts up the importance of democracy itself and is inspired by the energy of our Social Justice Ministry Council members to engage District Three candidates in conversations that emphasize our progressive values. The sermon will explore the movement that has led to the Trump presidency and offers a vision and call to action to take our civic life to a new level of engagement.

Religious freedom is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. It has deep roots in our history, connecting us to Unitarian King John Sigismund and to the Unitarianism of 16th century Transylvania (now part of Romania). This Sunday’s sermon celebrates our connection with our partner church and their minister Istvan Berei as well as offers up a bit of our history, a trail of connection to explores the 21st century relevance of the edict of Torda issued in 1568, that says “no one shall be reviled… or threatened” because of their religion. A Transylvania lunch will follow the service.

Reading Set 1:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice… Theodore Parker, Abolitionist and Unitarian Minister, 1853

How long will justice be crucified? How long? Not long because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long.
… Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Activist, 1965, Selma

“I wonder if compost believes in life after death? Compost work is not linear or in a static timeframe. Compost, she says has taught me how to reflect and grow from an action or effort in organizing beyond the breadth of conventional expectation. How do we learn from our hiccups, errors, mistakes, drama, and faculty that goes into action? How can future generations learn from and build on what we do, our work and intentions now? …” Naimi Penniman, activist, 20171

Reading Set 2:

Where is the security for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. What ever may be conceded to the influence of education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. President George Washington

I offer a modern day interpretation of this religious impulse by American civil rights activist Valerie Kaur who has labored with communities of color since September 11. She is Sikh and her uncle was one of the first Sikh to die in a hate crime following 9/11. The following is an excerpt of a ted talk she did last year on revolutionary love. Valerie Kaur, 3 Lessons of Revolutionary Love in a Time of Rage

We love ourselves when we breathe through the fire of pain and refuse to let it harden into hate. That’s why I believe that love must be practiced in three directions to be revolutionary. Loving just ourselves feels good, but its narcissism. Loving only our opponents is self-loathing. Loving only others is ineffective. We need to practice all three forms of love. And so, how do we practice it? Ready? Number one: in order to love others see no stranger. We can train our eyes to look upon strangers on the street on the subway, on the screen and say in our minds, “Brother, sister, aunt, uncle.” And when we say this, what we are saying is “You are a part of me I do not yet know. I choose to wonder about you. I will listen for your stories and pick up a sword when you are in harm’s way.” And so, number two: in order to love our opponents, tend the wound. Can you see the wound in the ones who hurt you? Can you wonder even about them? And if this question sends panic through your body then your most revolutionary act is to wonder, listen and respond to your own needs.

Number three: in order to love ourselves, breathe and push. When we are pushing into the fires in our bodies or the fires in the world, we need to be breathing together, in order to be pushing together. How are you breathing each day? Who are you breathing with? Because when executive orders and news of violence hits our bodies hard, sometimes less than a minute apart, it feels like dying. In those moments my son places his hand on my cheek and say “Dance time, mommy?” And we dance. In the darkness, we breathe and we dance. Our family becomes a pocket of revolutionary love. Our joy is an act of moral resistance. How are you protecting your joy each day? Because in joy we see even darkness with new eyes. And so the mother in me asks, what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb? What if our future is not dead but still waiting to be born? What if this is our great transition?

The Sermon

Last month a group of us shared a list of what we trusted, of what we put our faith in and democracy was high on my list. As we talked about our doubts, I wondered if this was true. Years of supreme court rulings that privilege the rich, suppress voting rights and make money the determining factor of our electoral process has eroded my faith in our democracy.

Two professors who studied the electoral process from 1981to 2002 found that the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.2 Add to this, that a GOP senator had to raise $89,000 a week to fund his 2016 bid. And that the Koch Brothers and the Devos family and 16 other billionaires have spent the last 15 years strategically used the supreme court to rig a “free market” to act on their behalf.3 I grieve for our democracy and I know that I am complicit. For too long I have engaged in the magical thinking that democracy is protected simply by the virtue of our founders who birthed it. Alone, I get lost in my grief. But with you, another possibility awaits. What if Valerie Kaur is right, that our future is not dead but still waiting to be born? What if this time is our great transition and that instead of grieving we feel enormous rage? What if we claim the power of revolutionary love and labor for others who do not look like us, for our opponents who hurt us, and for ourselves? Can we, as Kaur suggests restore our democracy to one that respects the dignity and worth of all beings and truly honors our interconnectedness?

What does this democracy look like? Researcher and author Frances Moore Lappe writes “Humans thrive best when the communities we create enable each of us, not just a privileged few to experience a sense of power, a knowing our voices count, a sense that our lives have meaning beyond our own survival, and that we have a satisfying connection with others. Add those together she says, and what do you have? The essence of democracy.”4 The essence of revolutionary love. A Love that is sweet labor. Fierce. Imperfect. Life-giving. A love that is a choice that changes you.

and where strangers were welcome and differences could thrive. A land where freedom of religion would unleash people’s spiritual energies to create a pluralist culture where strong convictions could co-exist peaceably as perhaps nowhere else on earth. A land where an intensely religious and diverse nation managed to combine the adage “In god we trust with it original motto, e pluribus Unum, out of many one.”5 For our founders a labor of love.

When the Constitutional convention was close to breaking down into bickering in 1787, an elderly Franklin said this to the assembled gathering:
“we have been assured by the sacred writings, that except the Lord builds the house they Labor in vain to build it.” “I firmly believe this, and I also believe without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of babel. We will be divided by our little partial local interests and we ourselves will be a reproach and a bye word down to future ages.” Alexander Hamilton quipped back in reply “we don’t need any foreign aid,” but the assembly was so startled by the pious suggestion by the old Unitarian rogue they recalled their better selves.6

Washington too believed the religious impulse enabled people to lay aside private gain and personal advantage in favor of the common good. Nowhere was this truer than in the economic market. Franklin advocated heavy levies on the rich to promote the common good. Thomas Paine lobbied for a progressive income tax and inheritance tax to establish funds that would help workers during business downturns and provide a stipend to families with young children.7 Today, our founding fathers would be repulsed by how their concept of freedom has been manipulated by judges and politician alike to create “free markets” that embolden and empower only the rich.

I don’t know if it is because three of the founders were Unitarians, but I sense their revolutionary spirit in the seven principles we have promised to practice together. Our fifth principle, the use of the democratic process in our church and our society at large is the keystone that makes the practice of the first 4 principles matter and the last two principles possible. The first four, to honor the dignity and worth of every person, to practice compassion, acceptance of one another, and to search for truth and meaning becomes real and relational when we use the democratic process. Using the democratic process makes possible our 6th and 7th principle of world peace, justice and respect for the interdependent web. Democracy is the keystone of our faith.

I remember the day this keystone became clear for me. The year was 2007, and Bill Sinkford, the UUA’s First African American president opened our annual general assembly by asking the 5000 delegates present, “What are our truths? To whom must we be reconciled?” He went on to say “We have many stories to uncover—genocide, slavery, oppression. Only by knowing our truths can we act boldly on our spiritual journey of healing.”

When have you experienced this feeling of revolutionary love? Maybe a time you found your voice and empowered another’s in doing so? Or a moment of connection with a community that changed you? A moment you said to yourself, this is what democracy looks like, feel like. Find just one moment and promise me you will share it later in the service. I can share one moment from a person no longer here. He experienced a life saving moment, a deep sense of connection the day Martin Henson from Black Lives Matter Boston came to this church. As a young person of color he felt affirmed and found his voice. But he and his family have left this church because he and his BLM matters T shirt doesn’t feel welcome in this sanctuary. He doesn’t feel safe in public or in school, for good reason, he has been jumped multiple times by his peers. How can we create safe place for him here, how can we, as Naimi Penniman suggests, learn from our hiccups for him and others of his generation? We
need to make our revolutionary love visible to truly dare democracy.

I love this story about fifteen-year-old Tessa who walked 140 miles march from the liberty Bell in Philadelphia to the Capital with her mother last April as part of the Democracy Spring movement. Before her mother agreed to let her go, Tessa had to promise she wouldn’t get arrested, but as she walked and got to know her coworkers, something changed. She felt solidarity. After a sizable amount of parental convincing, Tessa found herself walking to the Capitol steps with her mother and almost five hundred others. She sat down and waited for the police to arrive, chanting and singing with her new friends. As she was lined up with the other protesters to be handcuffed and arrested, she stood next to her mother. Tessa recalls “The capital police guy in charge tried really hard to convince my mom not to let me go through with it. He told my mom that if she let me go to jail she would be an awful mother.” Tessa refused to take the officer’s offer. As a juvenile, she was placed in a separate van and taken to a processing unit separate from the adults, including her mother. There she sat, alone in a transition cell, until being transferred to a holding cell, where she sat alone until 2 cellmates joined her. They were younger than her and close friends. She listened. They had been jumped by a small group of people whom they knew. At least one of the attackers had a knife. After an hour, they left the cell. After that things looked different to Tessa. Just learning that twelve-year- olds have to worry about being attacked with knives was shocking. She realized how kids grow up in different worlds and how some are victims of poverty and violence. A mere 24 hours in Jail stoked Tessa’s commitment to lifelong political activism. But what really changed her was community, relationships, and a time of sweet labor. Fierce. Imperfect. Life-giving. Change making.

William Hastie, our country’s first African American federal appellate judge once said “Democracy is becoming, rather than being. It can easily be lost, but never is fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle.”9 In this era of enormous rage, we need to see the fires burning around us and wonder what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb? What if our future is not dead but still waiting to be born? What if this is our great transition? Remember, the wisdom of the midwife, says Valerie Kaur “Breathe,” she says. And then –push. Because if we don’t push, if we don’t breathe, we will die. Revolutionary love requires us to breathe and push through the fire with a warrior’s heart and a saint’s eye so that one day you will see every child as your own. You will tend to the wound in the ones who want to hurt them. You will teach them how to love because you love yourself. You will whisper in each ear,  “You are brave. You are brave.” We are brave, let us push through the fire with a warrior’s heart, and a saint’s eye, becoming together revolutionary spirits of love.

1. [Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy, 2017, pg 105.]

2. [Yascha Mouk, “America is Not a Democracy” The Atlantic, March 2018, p.82]

3. [Francis Moore Lappe and Adam Eichen, Daring Democracy, pg. 34 and 54]

4. [Ibid, pg. 102]

5. [Gary Kowalkski, Revolutionary Spirits, 2008, pg. 12]

6. [Ibid, pg. 56]

7. [Ibid, pg. 15]

8. [Lappe, and Eichen, Daring Democracy pg. 59]

9. [Ibid, pg. 9]