The Difference We Need to Make

The Rev. Susan Milnor
January 7, 2018

When Fourth Universalist Society in NYC, where I served as interim minister, faced a very costly roof replacement on its historic building, some of the neighbors in the adjoining building asked to meet with us. They hoped, they said, to help us gather community support for financing, though I think they also wanted to make sure copper slates would not be hitting them in the head when they walked out their door. Veteran journalist, historian, and student of religion Bill Moyers was to be one of their representatives.

He arrived early that day, and we talked a bit about our seminary experiences and the future of religion in America. It was a thrill for me, as his televised interviews with the great mythologist Joseph Campbell changed my spiritual life and helped lead me to ministry. More strikingly, in all his work Moyers has served as what one writer called the “America’s conscience” in exposing corruption and income inequality and teaching us about our own democracy. In person, he is exactly the same as he seemed in his interviews: intelligent, thoughtful, respectful, concerned, a thoroughly decent human being.

How sad it was, then, just before Christmas, to read his final blog for “Moyers and company” as he retired from public life. It began simply, Now it’s time for another farewell, and with this note I am signing off.” His good-bye punctuated a year that had proved to be, in language once used by Queen Elizabeth, annus horriblis. Regardless of our partisan political leanings, many Americans, including, I suspect, most in this congregation, ended the year deeply disturbed about the state of the country and the world. This week’s snow storm seemed to symbolize our larger crisis: differences freezing into impossibilities, emotional turbulence whipping into our worst and most oppositional instincts, tidewaters of zeitgeist and media attention pushing us this way and that way without an oar to steer the boat.

But that is intellectualized, and to be honest with you as a preacher, I have to admit that personally, this year has proved hard. I am not alone in wondering where to turn whatever energy I have try to make a difference. Racism? Gender issues and rights? The environment? The threat of nuclear war? The widening economic gulf and loss of health care? Or our decreasing ability to talk to one another without calling each other names and drawing lines we will not cross? It feels like a whack-a-mole game.

That’s why it was such a gift to stumble across an interview with Moyers, done just before his sign off, which reminds me what faith calls us to in these trying times. Asked what role his own religious faith has played in shaping his political views and journalism, Moyers said, “When I was growing up, I never heard anyone pray, ‘Give me this day my daily bread.” It was always, “Give us this day our daily bread.’ That stuck. We're all in this together. I take “We, the People” seriously because I don't know how we build a civilization without reciprocity. There's a moral contract in that Preamble. And although I was brought up in a culturally and religiously conservative culture, as a Baptist I was taught that no one has the right to subpoena your conscience.”

Few Unitarian Universalist need to be cautioned to hold onto our consciences, but Moyers’ words remind us that our values are deeply rooted in the agreement to support and care for one another in a democratic context. While providing great freedom of conscience, our best history has not centered on individuals doing or thinking or landing wherever the wind blows them, but in walking together with concern for whether the other person is as empowered as we are. Because our faith’s values have been so tied to this nation’s values, I believe that tradition calls us now to do everything in our power to preserve, or perhaps re-create, a truly democratic social order based on fundamental decency in how we treat one another.

How you do that is up to you. It may reflect my Southern heritage, but for me, protecting our voting rights is the most fundamental mandate of all. I grew up with a particular political orientation in my working- class family; a newspaper photo of my father shows him walking the picket line in an thin top coat and fedora during an uncommon snow storm in Knoxville Tennessee. Yet it never seriously occurred to me that those with different values or affiliations should not have a vote. Democracy must be an honest struggle for the mind and hearts and convictions of the people.Most importantly, for us today, as UUs we are committed to this religiously. Not only do our UU Purposes and Principles affirm the sanctity of the democratic process, but our beginnings emerged from the Western Enlightenment. Shortly before his death, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” Well, of course, Thomas Jefferson could be wrong– and very noninclusive. But you get the point.

I respect that history intellectually, but my heart is driven by our Universalist legacy of affirming every person as a child of God. Think about it. No, they said, it’s not enough to care for your own salvation, the theological equivalent of “every man for himself, jump ship to heaven.” The Universalists insisted every human being matters to God and therefore we must all matter to each other. If reason lies at the core of our Unitarian inheritance, then spiritual decency lies at the heart of our Universalist DNA.

Doing everything we can to live that decency is the other half of making sure everyone has a voice. We need to listen to each other’s voices and grant some measure of respect to each other’s humanity. As Angela Merkel says, her wish for the new year is “for us to become aware again of that which holds us together at heart; that we focus again on what we have in common; and for us to strive to have more consideration for others.”

It would be nice if we could all look to our leaders for such inspiration, but that, of course, is the problem. Sometimes you find it where you can. As this annus horriblis drew to a frigid close, I found it in another unlikely source. Sarah Silverman, a self- described liberal Jewish comedian from the Northeast, began to wonder after the election whether she puts people who vote differently from her into neat boxes that miss their humanity. Suspecting that she does, she set out to get to get to know such people in a spirit of curiosity and openness. The result is a Netflix original series called, “I Love You, America.” In the first episode, she travels to Chalette, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans, to meet the Standers, a conservative Christian Cajun family who voted for the current president. As they prepare the meal they eat together, they become acquainted over talk of Silverman’s Jewish roots and their own Cajun background. Afterwards, they sit down to plumb the depth of their differences.

When Silverman raises the subject of former President Obama’s birth place, the family expresses its doubts. She slaps her forehead, laughs, and challenges them. So the conversation goes for a while. Then she asks what they think about gay marriage. To her surprise, everyone in the family thinks people should be free to love who they choose, and the women of the family support same gender marriage.It’s a moment of epiphany. Even to those of us who agonize about the regression of rights we see every day, it seems that on some fronts, acceptance and affirmation each other are growing. The visit ends with hugs, laughter, and a little bit of hope that perhaps we are really all in this together, if only we could accept it.

I deeply believe that our faith calls us to defend democratic rights. But our values also call us to dwell in the decency that forms the other half of the moral compact. With the alarming events of the past year, I have found myself more likely to judge or give up on those who seem to support the erosion of rights I hold dear. It’s a spiritual challenge to trust the essential humanity of those with whom we deeply disagree at the same time we add our voices and our support to preserving the democratic order. We can cannot afford to ignore either half of the equation. I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, but at times I make commitments to do better.

A week into 2018, Bill Moyers’ last words in his final blog come as both encouragement and warning: “. . please remain vigilant and engaged as citizens in the civic and political life of your community and our country. Democracy is fragile, and no one can say with certainty that it can withstand the manifold risks to which it is now exposed.”

He is right, my friends.And we will weather this storm if, and only if, we admit how much we need each other.

Davies, A. Powell.America’s Real Religion. Washington D.C.: All Souls Church A. Powell Davies Memorial Committee. 1949
Dreier Peter. “Bill Moyers, America’s Conscience, Retires Again—This Time for Real,” The American Prospect, December 15, 2017.