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Sermons: “Can Politics Change Culture?

Reconnecting politics to our best values is now the most important task of a political life.
—Jim Wallis

Reading: an excerpt from Just Stories: How the Law Embodies Racism and Bias, by Thomas Ross

A while ago, Sydney and I watched a video called Once Upon a Time, When We Were Colored. The film tells of the growing up years of Clifton Taubert, a young “colored” boy in the South during the 1950's and 60's. Mostly it tells about the loving and supportive community of hard working black people who lived in Glen Allan, Mississippi, the village in which Clifton grew up—his grandfather, his aunt, his schoolteacher, and dozens of cousins. We watch them eating together, studying, going to church. We see the goodness of the people win out over the cynicism and selfishness of a traveling showgirl who stays with the family for a few days while the circus is in town. We watch the inner conflict of the boy’s aunt as she tries on some of the showgirl’s stylish clothes.

Dramatic tension is provided by the things the grandfather has to teach the boy about protecting himself from white people, and by the attempts of a white businessman to steal customers from the local, black ice man. The story reaches its climax when the people of the black village spontaneously go on strike in resistance to the pressure to buy their ice from the white company.

The film is gentle, elegiac, almost a fairy tale, as the title implies. It almost caresses the little town and its sturdy people. They are decent, caring, responsible, attractive. They look after their own, trying to raise their children to be moral and upstanding. They help each other in times of trouble. They are torn between the close ties that bind them to the rest of their community and the lure of high wages and freedom from Jim Crow laws that call to them from the North.

The North attracts them, especially the young men, because they can’t stay forever in the village. Every day, life takes them out of their safe homes into the white town or onto white farms, and when they go among whites, they are overworked and underpaid, pushed around and threatened, abused and discounted by most of the whites they have to deal with.

Now, a change of focus. A while back, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and the warmth of domestic life that they turned into TV comedy during the 50's. Again, these were people who cared for each other, who respected each other, but who could get caught up in silliness and hilarity deciding to get a new hairdo, washing the car, or training a puppy. Week after week, we came into the Nelson’s home and learned the story of their family, saw the depth of their relationships to one another, and learned to laugh at ourselves as we laughed at them.

These two stories about life in the US of A between 1945 and 1960 are so attractive that I can’t question the yearning of some Americans to return to the kind of basic values they associate with that time. I can even understand that some people might want to pass laws that would draw or compel us to rebuild such a society, such strong family values.

But let’s pull those two media experiences closer together. Instead of locating the Nelson family in the San Fernando Valley, let’s transport them to Mississippi and put them in the township where Once Upon a Time was situated. This is not too much to imagine. I’m sure there were hundreds of white families in that town who resembled the Nelson’s in many ways, although the fathers of those families probably had jobs they went to most days of the week, whereas Ozzie was always at home. Life for the Nelson’s would be pretty much the same in Mississippi, except they would most likely have a colored maid do the housework, and maybe a chauffeur who would take care of washing the car, depriving Ozzie and neighbor Thornton of the opportunity for many of their conversations. They might even be the family that gives books to young Clifton in the movie.

What is different is that we are now looking at the stories of the two families side by side. We see how one family is oppressed by the culture the other family finds to be very comfortable. We see the pain and rage that the black family has to fight down whenever the whites decide to assert their superiority. And we begin to understand that the values of the Nelson family were never really tested in their daily comedy. They had it pretty easy, all things considered. They could get exercised over the details of daily living because the rest of the world didn’t impinge on their existence. The boys, David and Ricky, didn’t even use drugs. Probably didn’t drink until they were 21. And as far as I can remember, they didn’t even have girl friends, so sexuality was not an issue.

(If you’re too young to remember the Nelsons, just think of the Partridge family or the Brady Bunch. The narratives were similar in that the families dealt each week with minor bumps in the road, but never had to survive major floods that washed out the road completely.)

On the other hand, the closeness and interdependence of Clifton’s village were an active response to the tenuousness of their lives. They were tested all the time. They had to deal with poverty, the fickleness of white society, the constant threat of violence and repression, and the inexorable tightening of the constraints that white society placed on them.

And this is where I see the efforts of the good folks who have been trying to legislate their version of family closeness for us, running into difficulty, running into irreality, actually.

The feeling I get from my reading is that they really do have a vision of the peaceable kingdom. To say that they want to return to the world of Ozzie and Harriet is not fair to them. And to imply that they would want to return to Jim Crow times is a grave injustice. They do want a world of racial equality. They do want a world in which all people can prosper and feel proud of themselves, in which everyone can discover their gifts and live them. They do want a world in which the self-destructive behaviors we all deplore today have been washed away.

And they even have a vision of how it can come about. They feel that the key to reclaiming the solid citizenship and close family life of the 50's is to return to the religious values of that time. Let kids pray in school. Honor marriage. Teach such a reverence and respect for life that abortion would be out of the question. Get sexuality off the TV screen and back into the bedroom behind closed doors. Do whatever is necessary to remove the specter of drugs from our streets. Instill in children a profound love of God, so that they will have the resources they need to resist the temptations that still come their way.

For all I know, these may indeed be the very developments that would bring a measure of salvation to our society. I believe in most of them. I think prayer is school is a wonderful idea. Prayer in the classroom, prayer in the locker room, prayer on the bus, prayer in the library, prayer on the playing field. A life of prayer is a life of richness, self-knowledge, empathy and balance. I wish I were better at it. I wish everyone might learn it. But the prayer I’m talking about isn’t set-aside prayer. It isn’t prayer by the clock or on demand. What matters in a person’s life is the habit of prayer as something that wells up from within, not something that is called up by a bell or a teacher.

I honor marriage. I’d better. I get a significant income from ushering people into it. But I see marriage as a covenant between two people, first of all, and between the couple and society, secondly. These days, when so many of the couples I marry have been married before and already have children, the covenant may actually be between three or four or five people, since the children have to be counted into the relationship as well. Each couple I marry has its own dynamics, its own balances, its own trajectory, its own emotional tenor.

And each couple has its own way of assigning authority and responsibility. The one sure sign that a marital relationship is going to be troubled is if the partners have externally derived expectations about what it means to be a wife or a husband. It’s always a surprise to me to see which partner has the money sense, which is intuitive, which is concerned about home decor, which is enthusiastic about children, which is the neatnik and which is messy. There are no rules about these things. Nobody fits a mold. Each relationship is a rich and rewarding amalgamation of talents and shortcomings. You can’t legislate it.

I dislike abortion. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t . I would really like to see the kind of respect and reverence for life that would make abortion unthinkable. But I have my own understanding of what that reverence means. First of all, it must include reverence for the potential parents before the moment of conception. By which I mean, that reverence for life doesn’t just apply to the foetus. It applies first to the two whose behavior leads to conception. I would want them to revere and respect each other to the point of behaving responsibly and caringly toward each other. And that means thinking of the future as well as the present. It means protecting each other from shame, from responsibility they are not prepared to meet, from the disruption of their own childhoods, if they are young.

I also think that reverence for life means more than allowing a foetus to come to term. It means caring for a mother throughout her pregnancy. It means providing that young life with warmth and shelter, food, love, and security. The right to life has to mean more than the right to be born. It must also mean the right to a healthy environment, a meaningful education, and the opportunity to earn a decent living. The right to life should not mean rats, drugs, and hypothermia. When post-partum rights cannot be provided, then I don’t see birth as the greatest gift of all. If adoption is not feasible, or if the foetus is severely damaged, then I think that abortion may be the more loving response.

Sexuality is another area where I agree but disagree. We do live in a culture that is heavy with sexual energy. I can’t speak about television, I’ll refer you to this weekend’s TV Guide for that, but there is certainly a lot of sexualized material in the daily newspaper, to say nothing of the magazines and tabloids next to the check out stand in the super market. And many of the big stories of the year, in the local papers at least, combine sex and violence. Sex is one of the most powerful motivators of human action. It not only sells products and gains an audience for the media, it also drives people crazy. In Maine, where there is little drug activity or gang activity, the majority of murders involve couples who have split up, usually ex-husbands or ex-boyfriends shooting the women who have left them.

And, yes, with a credit card and some form of age verification you can find sex on the internet. It’s all voyeurism and fantasy, but it’s there, in huge quantities. Run a search on “sex” and you’ll get thousands of listings. Obviously, sex not only sells automobiles, computers, and perfume, it also sells itself. And we don’t seem to become satiated with it. The appetite always renews. Else Cosmopolitan wouldn’t feature so much creative cleavage on its cover every month.

However, I suspect that for most people all this sexualized atmosphere does little more than give their hormones a little hum. We look at the cover of Cosmo and imagine ourselves being that woman or being with that woman, and maybe we spend a little more money on clothing or cosmetics, maybe we carry the frisson of sex home with us and initiate some fun-time with our spouse or partner. If our lives are already filled with work and social activities and children and clubs and church and school, there is probably not that much time for sex. We may even need to be reminded of the possibility once in a while.

Sex is a problem when it causes us to lose control of our actions, which it can do, or when we begin to see ourselves as sexual beings before all else. This can happen to anyone, not just teenagers. Infatuation can strike us at any time of our lives, and it can lead us to break marital vows, make fools of ourselves, put ourselves in danger, and completely uproot our lives. But we learn as we grow older that we don’t have to act on such impulses, we can just enjoy them and marvel at their power within us. For most people, I think, sexual attraction is too strong to resist only if the glue of their existing relationships has lost its holding power. The ubiquitous presence of sexual messages is only a threat if one is not sure that one’s power to resist is strong. And I suspect that those who make the most noise about other people’s sexuality are really speaking out of fear of losing themselves.

And if you think sexuality is powerful here, imagine what it must be like in Afghanistan or Iran, where the ideology gives all sexual power to the woman and keeps her completely hidden from view so that she won’t stir up the unruly impulses of the male. Talk about sex and fear!

I could go on, but you get the picture. I share the vision that our family values friends cherish, but at every turn, I have a different understanding of what their words mean and how we can get there. And that brings me back to the comment I made earlier about the way the family values in Glen Allan, Mississippi had been tested, while those of the Nelsons had not. We are now going through a time of testing. The values to which our friends want to return are actually values which did not have enough substance to survive the testing they were subjected to during the last thirty years. They worked as long as outside pressures were kept at bay. Only when some inner resource kept the family strong in the face of drug use, divorce, illness, bankruptcy, death, or similar crises, did the lasting values develop.

When we look at the families in Glen Allan, we can see that the values they live by have developed as a result of their story. It is the story of a people under siege, deprived of most worldly goods, but having the pluck and good humor to create a life for themselves that held meaning, perhaps because of their trials. The Nelsons, on the other hand, do not have such a story. We have not been allowed to see the crucible which refined them. As far as we know, they have always been the same. Their values came with the house and yard. This is a cruel judgment, I know. Every family, even the most comfortable and prosperous, knows suffering and trial. Certainly Ricky’s early death brought pain and suffering to his family, as did and the rumor that he had been freebasing at the time, even if it may later have been proven untrue.. But the trials that Ozzie and Harriet showed us on television never approached suffering. They floated through life, as far as we knew.

Because I feel so strongly that our values grow from our life story, I resist any attempt to impose values from a position of authority. Values cannot be imposed from outside. They grow organically from the wealth of experience that shapes our lives. Even if we grow up learning to value the family, we also learn our own personal connotations of each family value as our life with our family shapes us. Our values form and are formed by the narrative of our lives. They cannot exist without a story, our story, our lives as they unfold in all their wonder and frustration and beauty and pain. Values are not learned by rote, nor by words. They require example based on conviction and rooted in the give and take of experience. Otherwise they are empty words. Meaning always comes from context.

We are about to witness the changing of the guard in Washington, DC. Many of us hope for a return to honesty, the rule of law, international cooperation, true compassion in government, transparency, and responsibility. These are important values. They are values held by most Americans, I hope. They are values that grow from a different narrative than the one that has guided our nation for the past decade. We will have to stop seeing ourselves as somehow more important than other nations, and we will have to stop approaching each new demand for action as a problem to solve. Pragmatism is deeply ingrained in American life, but unreflective pragmatism tends to put ends before means. We will need a new understanding of success, one which puts ethical behavior before immediate gain. That may require a deep ethical inventory from all of us, because there are so many ways that we have all benefitted from the emphasis on results that has prevailed in the past, whether in the gain in our property values, the size of our pensions, the price we pay for produce or for gasoline, or the institutions for which we work and from which we receive our salaries. A change in values in Washington may require a change in values throughout our country. The corporations, the White House and the Congress are not the only players in this new narrative. We each have a strand of the story to live out. Who do you suppose will teach whom?

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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