“Standing Up Against Gun Violence”
Sermon and Worship Service for
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of
Columbia, South Carolina
January 29, 2017
The Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister
Chimes for Gathering
Prelude [J.P. Flood]
Opening Words [Marge Piercy]:
“Attention is love, what we must give children, mothers, fathers, pets, our friends, the news, [and] the woes of others. What we want to change, we curse, and then pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can, with eyes and hands and tongue. If you can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.”
Choral Call to Worship “Oh, Won’t you Sit Down” [Adult Choir]
The Morning Reading, from, “The Low Road,” by Marge Piercy
…Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, [can give] conviction,
love, massage, hope, [even] sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
[A hundred fill this hall.]
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.
It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.
Responsive Reading #567 “To Be of Use,” by Marge Piercy
Sermon: “Standing Up Against Gun Violence”
Gun violence in our nation must be reduced. And gun laws must be more restrictive. The threat of injury or death from gun violence must be lessened so that everyone in our nation is safer, especially children. We can all agree on that. We are all on the same page. But how exactly do we achieve that desperately needed change? I have some wisdom from two wise teachers to share with you this morning. The sociologist and religious writer Parker Palmer, and the famous twentieth century theologian, James Luther Adams, who was a Unitarian Universalist. We are all on the same page about needing to stand up against gun violence. And we are not alone. This morning is, “Stand up against gun violence Sunday.” All across South Carolina clergy and congregations are raising awareness about gun violence and advocating for stricter gun laws. For last year’s Stand Up Sunday, an estimated two thousand congregations took part. Stand up Sunday was initiated in response to the shooting in the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, in June of 2015. After our worship service this morning, we will have information to share with you about the needed legislative changes, and letters that you can sign, that we will deliver to our legislators. This is a highly divisive and conflicted time in our nation’s politics. That can feel overwhelming and extremely emotional. But taking action toward making our communities more safe and fair is one of the most helpful ways we can respond to those conflicts and channel those emotions.
To try to figure out some ways we can best do that effectively, I’ve been reading Parker Palmer’s book, Healing the Heart of Democracy – The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. He wrote it in 2011. But he has reissued it with a new introduction that he wrote in 2014. It is that introduction that I found most helpful in preparing for our “Stand Up Sunday” service this morning. In it, he tells the story of a seventy-one year old man, Rod House, a resident of La Veta, Colorado, population 800. Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, and by reading Parker Palmer’s book, Mr. House, entirely on his own, set up a tent outside the La Veta library. He stated that he planned to camp out there in an effort to encourage conversation across the categories and special interest areas that divide us. He is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who has lived through some times when he has felt less patriotic, yet recently, more so. He said, “I love my country and I want to help fix it… I have ten grandchildren and I care about their future and that is why I am here.” To Parker Palmer, the point of Rod House’s story is that, “none of us –no matter how small the scope of our actions may be, or how far off the beaten track we live– is without ways to make our voice heard and invite others to speak their voices as well… By speaking his voice, House helped a number of people in his hometown become more thoughtful not only about some critical problems in this country, but also about the critical role “We the People” play in finding solutions.” Rod and his wife became more deeply engaged citizens, and led a book study group of Parker Palmer’s book. They wrote an editorial to their local paper that said, “Democracy is weakened when we only speak with those who share our views . . . To be effective, we need the participation of folks from… all walks of life– ranchers, teachers, business owners, the financially secure and those struggling to make ends meet, new comers and old-timers.”
I feel inspired and motivated by Rod House’s story. But Parker Palmer found that when he told people about what Rod House did, they reacted in distinctly different ways. Parker Palmer then developed a model, which is new to me, of ways people view power– their own personal power, and that of institutions. We have become accustomed to seeing the divides in our nation along lines of political parties, or urban versus rural, or education level, or liberal versus conservative, etc. But Palmer says that some people found Rod House’s story hopeful, and others saw it as “just another feel-good anecdote.” Palmer writes:
“First, there is the divide between (a) people who believe in the power of ideas, values, commitments, and visions– a/k/a the power of the human heart, and (b) those who believe that power comes only from possessing or having access to social status, wealth, positional leadership, and the capacity to command institutional resources. This is the divide between those who believe that power is found within us as well as outside us, and those for whom all power is external to the self. Second, there is the divide between (a) people who believe in ‘the power of one’ to act on the heart’s imperatives, especially when such an act calls a community of shared concern into being, and (b) those who believe that ordinary people, alone or together, are fundamentally powerless in a society dominated by mass institutions. This is a variant on the first divide, of course. But, here, those who disbelieve in the power of the human heart have doubled down on their disbelief. Not only do they regard the heart as inherently powerless– they believe it remains powerless even when we follow the heart’s imperatives with personal and communal actions. To the argument that community has the capacity to multiply personal power many times over, they respond, ‘a thousand times zero is zero.’ Third, there is the divide between (a) those who believe in the power of small, slow, invisible, underground processes, and (b) those who believe that only processes that yield large-scale visible results in the short term qualify as powerful. The former understand the importance of political infrastructure, and have the patience to work away at strengthening it, even when their work is slow to yield measurable outcomes and never generates headlines. The latter seek quick fixes that look like solutions, whether or not they solve anything– and, if they fail to achieve them, either jump to the next quick fix or quit the field.” Palmer goes on to say, “As I began to reject the traditional left-right notion of our great political divide in favor of a schema built on different assumptions about the nature of power, I began to see something hopeful. Redefined this way, the ‘great divide’ does not parallel the left-right divide: it is nonpartisan. To cite but two examples, both the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party are made up of people who believe in the power of ideas and values, the power of one multiplied in community, and the power of invisible, long-term, infrastructure work. On those counts, at least, there is no fundamental difference between groups that are poles apart ideologically.” When our divided nation is viewed through Palmer’s schema, there is hope that Americans can come together and define the Common Good, and work to make it actual.
And that is exactly what we have to do, to make our nation more safe and peaceful, and to preserve the very democracy on which our nation was founded. So says the great scholar and social activist James Luther Adams. He writes about this in his well-known essay on Voluntary Associations. He calls Voluntary Associations “the indispensable discipline of social responsibility.” Adams begins his essay by describing his trip to Germany a few years before the Nazis came into power. He was visiting Nuremberg in 1927. There was a mass meeting of the National Socialists, with a parade. He asked some people on the sidelines to explain the meaning of the swastika. His questions led to his becoming engaged in a heated argument. Suddenly, someone seized him from behind and hauled him out of the crowd. As it turned out, the German man who grabbed Adams, saved him. He said to Adams, “You fool. Don’t you know? In Germany today when you are watching a parade, you either keep your mouth shut, or you get your head bashed in.” The German man, a sailor in the merchant marines, brought Adams back to his apartment to share a modest dinner, yet with abundant hospitality, with his family. [The German man had visited America when he was in the merchant marines. Americans had been welcoming and gracious to him. So that is part of why he reached out to Adams.] On reflection, Adams realized that the political conditions he experienced in Germany at that time were the beginnings of the abolishment of freedom of association, which was leading to totalitarianism. He then had to ask himself, “What in your typical behavior as an American citizen have you done that would help to prevent the rise of authoritarian government in your own country? [and] What disciplines of democracy (except voting) have you habitually undertaking with other people which could serve in any way directly to affect public policy? More bluntly stated: I asked myself, What precisely is the difference between you and a political idiot?”
Adams then cites the German theologian Karl Barth as having stressed that “every conscientious German citizen should now participate actively in voluntary associations committed to the task of making democracy work.” Adams then cites what, over a hundred years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about voluntary associations in America. “Libraries, hospitals, fire prevention, and [associations] for political and philanthropic purposes.” Adams writes that, “Taken together, these associations… represent the institutional articulation of the pluralistic society.” They have their roots in the Protestant Reformation, and in the separation of church and state. And being engaged in voluntary associations is how we get better at the processes of fairly hearing and honoring differences of opinion, reaching consensus, and forming coalitions that act to make life more fair for all citizens, including “securing civil liberties or better housing, or with overcoming racial discrimination.” He then says, “In short, the voluntary association is a means for the institutionalizing of gradual revolution.” Basically, Adams wrote that there will always be associations devoted only to special interests, and they pressure our government. Therefore, to insure the health of our democracy, there must also be associations devoted to the general welfare, that counterbalance the special interest groups. Adams asserts, “Human sinfulness expresses itself, then, in the indifference of the average citizen who is so impotent, so idiotic in the sense of that word’s Greet root (that is, privatized), as not to exercise freedom of association for the sake of the general welfare and for the sake of becoming a responsible self.” Adams then harkens back to the story at the beginning of his essay. He concludes by stating, “In the democratic society the non-participating citizens bash their own heads in. The living democratic society requires the disciplines of discussion and common action for the determination of policy.”
Both Parker Palmer and James Luther Adams have given us much to think about, and I look forward to talking about their ideas and visions with you. And I think that the most important element of both of their theories is the communal piece. They both believe that it is through collective action that communities are made more safe and fair for all people, and democracies are preserved and saved. I believe that, too. Though there are times when any of us can feel that belief wavering, when we wonder, “What really is the power of only one person?” There, again, the joining together with other people can, not only effect progressive change over time, but doing so can inspire and motivate us, anew. The loss of lives from gun violence that we mourn today is tragic and heartbreaking. Yet here we are, as a congregation determined not to look away, not to disengage. And we are united with congregations all over our state this weekend who are also declaring: we will not give up, we will not be silent, we will stand up, and keep speaking up and standing up. In faith that collective action can change wounded hearts and minds and laws, let us add our names to the fight to end senseless gun violence.
*Hymn [verses 1-4, then repeat 1st verse] #100 I’ve Got Peace Like a River
*Benediction [the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons]:
“There is, finally, only one thing required of us– that is: to take life whole, the sunlight and shadow together, to live the life that is given us with courage and humor and truth. We have such a little moment, out of the vastness of time, for all our wondering and loving– Therefore, let there be no half-heartedness. Therefore, let the soul be ardent in its pain, its yearning, and in its praise– Then shall peace enfold our days, and glory shall not fade from our lives.”
*Extinguishing the Chalice
*Postlude [Cabaret Preview, Elizabeth Harris]