Wednesday, May 9th was a day much like any other. I woke at 5:45 in the morning, sat in a semi-catatonic state sipping coffee and trying to get my bearings. As usual, I insisted that my feeble mind square itself with the day, an often futile exercise. I ate breakfast and left for work, where I answered calls, fixed computer problems and then returned home exhausted. That evening, I sat reading the NY Times email digest, when my attention was drawn to a rather spectacular headline. Thinking it a mistake, I clicked the link and read the following quote from Barack Obama, "I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask Don't Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married."
With a smile, I turned to my wife and said, "Wow! Did you know Obama endorsed same-sex marriage today?" "Yes," she replied, without looking up from her blogging activities. But I sat there stunned and glad for the change. The next few days saw rampant speculation about the President's timing, about his motives and about the political implications of his actions. But nothing anyone said had the ring of truth. The commentary was pure speculation, peppered with guesswork all wrapped in responsible language trying to masquerade as fact.
Obama had offered a simple explanation for his decision. I suppose his words lacked sensationalism, so our media had to generate engaging reasons for his decision. None were insightful, mostly they were a gage of our society's tendency to ascribe motive as a means of gaining political advantage.
This sermon is about exactly those kinds of motives. The kinds that people attribute to others without knowing what we are talking about. The kinds of motives that we create in order to know which category someone belongs in. In order to determine how carefully we should listen, if at all.
As with most of my sermons, today's talk was inspired by a conversation I had with my wife. Several months ago, she told me that I often attribute motives to her, which aren't her actual motives. I was flabbergasted.
"What?!" I stuttered, "I attribute wrong ...motives?!"
I like to think of myself as being unusually insightful and I'm not particularly fond of having someone point out my mistakes. I prefer, instead, to identify my own shortcomings and then highlight them for others. That way, I can bask in the warm glow of my own self-enlightenment. But she was right, again. I did not know what her motives were and I usually didn't ask. This insight, though annoying, caused me to consider how often people attribute motives to others without actually knowing.
Immediately, I thought of national dialogues concerning same-sex marriage, the war in Afghanistan, pro-life/pro-choice, deficit spending, pro-union/pro-business, race relations, feminism, education and parenting.
Indeed, our media, our politics, our religious conversations and even our personal lives are inundated with alleged motives that may, in all reality, have little or nothing in common with the true reasons that actions were taken or things were said.
Let's consider marriage equality, is it a civil rights issue? Supporters say yes, they insist that any two people, who are old enough, should be allowed to marry. To them, prejudice is prejudice and free choice is free choice. Marriage equality is nothing more than observing someone's right of free choice, in an arena where it is currently being denied.
Simple and straightforward. This represents my sincere point of view. However, my philosophical opponents don't see it this way. In fact, many believe marriage equality supporters are servants of evil. They believe we are pushing a "gay agenda,” which will undermine the sanctity of a bedrock institution and which could tear our society apart. To them, supporters of marriage equality are minions of Satan, bent on destroying this great Christian nation.
Truth be told, THEY HAVE MY MOTIVES ALL WRONG!
But what about assigning motives in the other direction? What if we consider another topic like pro-life vs. pro-choice? I am pro-choice and my reasons for this position are similar to my reasons for supporting marriage equality. I believe in free choice and I feel a woman has the right to choose if, how and when her body is used, including for child birth.
On the opposite side of this controversy, we’ll consider my late Grandfather, who was a staunch Catholic. His pro-life conviction was steadfast. He was clear that aborting a pregnancy is tantamount to murder. He saw an unborn fetus as being no different than any person you might meet in this world. It was a simple matter to him, conception creates people, abortion kills people, killing people is murder and murder is wrong.
Simple and straightforward, I drew different conclusions from him, but I can respect his clarity. My Grandfather’s position on abortion did not make him misogynistic. I reject the notion that pro-life activists are primarily motivated by a desire to control women's lives and bodies. This may be true of some, but I’m convinced that most pro-lifers feel passionately that they are fighting to stop murder. I think they are bewildered when accused of being dishonest or nefarious. Honestly, THE LEFT HAS THEIR MOTIVES ALL WRONG!
These two examples demonstrate a broader problem. A problem, which prevents intelligent conversation, which discourages collaboration, and which undermines the creative power of controversy. I believe the most innovative ideas are spawn from controversy. That when opposing opinions clash, and intelligent dialogue ensues, we create fertile ground for the germination of new ideas.
But in our society, the required dialogue is missing. We hurl insults and categorize people as Nazis so as to insulate ourselves from having to consider their points of view. The soil that should nurture tomorrow’s solutions is growing fallow and most of today’s ideas are little more than a polished regurgitation of yesterday’s discarded plan. This is a concerning state of affairs. With global climate change, a dubious economy, rampant starvation, a growing population and shrinking resources, we face unprecedented challenges.
So what is the solution? That’s the hard part. Humans prefer simple answers, but today’s challenges are complex. They defy black and white categorization, they require thoughtful discourse, a nuanced approach, and wholistic thinking. We need to constantly look for where we are falling short of our own values. UU values include a free and responsible search for truth, promotion of the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and respect for the interdependent web of existence. Those are values, which could make a profound difference in today’s world. They are values that humanity desperately needs, and we could be their greatest champions, if we are willing.
But we’ll have to give something up. We’ll have to pay a price and that price will be our certitude. Ours is a religion, which ought to make room for everyone and yet there are very few African American UUs or Hispanic UUs or Native American UUs or Republican UUs. If we want our message to be vital, we need to reach these people and if we’re going to do so, we must stop thinking that we know what their motives are.
When we assume we know someone's motives, we excuse behavior, which is normally unacceptable. I used to rant that G.W. was a fascist and a Nazi. I was wrong! My wife’s paternal family is Jewish. One of her cousin’s parents lost everyone they knew to the horror of Nazi concentration camps. She has no grandparents, or aunts or uncles. Her parents have no life long friends. They were all murdered in Nazi Germany.
So using the term Nazi to describe anyone who isn’t engaged in the mass murder of millions of people is wrong! It is particularly disgusting when used to score cheap political points. The memory of those men, women and children who were lost during that genocide is worthy of a much greater reverence and respect than to be used for short term political gain or to discredit someone we simply don't want to listen to, because we dislike what they say.
If we’re going to change this world and leave it a better place, if we’re going to really promote our UU values at large. We’ll have to rise above such contemptuous foolery. We’ll have to elevate current dialogues to a level where change can happen, where innovation can flourish, where UU values can sow dreams, which might sprout and become tomorrow’s thriving harvest. If we’re going to create that world about which we talk to eloquently, we will have to abandon inflammatory language and try to gain an honest understanding of why people disagree with us. Otherwise we can’t possibly hope to reach them and we are sure to miss the valid points they make. We're sure to fail at creating the needed ideas for tomorrow. We're sure to short circuit the creative engine of intelligent disagreement, which will yield tomorrow's great ideas.
I believe the values this world needs can be found in our UU Principles and sources of faith. I believe we are the ideal people to promote those values in this world. I think the essence of our shared promise, our covenant to affirm and promote our seven principles is a call to action. I believe it is nothing less than a call for us to stand tall and challenge each other to climb higher, to champion our values with an even louder voice. I think we have a powerful legacy to uphold, that we are the culmination of generations who have struggled to realize these values in this world. We are needed, our message is needed and our values are needed. We've promised each other that we would promote those values and I believe this is the time for us to walk out into this world and shout our good news at the top of our lungs. To sow our dreams into the fertile ground of tomorrow for this world's future. To create the vision we have dreamed and manifest our beautiful vision for the next generation.