Occupying Democracy: A Veteran’s Day Message


Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville


In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were sent by the French government to study the American prison system. They came, but they used their prison survey as a pretext to look at life in America. For nine months they traveled the United States, studying prisons and collecting information on American society, including its religious, political, and economic character.

Tocqueville and Beaumont were interested in the roots of America’s democratic social state of equality, at least more than had ever been established before. They concluded that when the Puritans, a homogenous group of middle class religious seekers, arrived in the new world as equals, they brought together religion and political liberty in a way that was uncommon in Europe.

The Puritan’s concept of “a sovereignty of the people” was adopted by the American Revolution, and then the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which developed institutions to manage popular will. More important that the constitution itself, the American people’s “habits of mind” played a more prominent role in the protection of freedom that laws themselves.

My basic concern this morning is that the American mindset that Tocqueville credited as a basis for American democracy and social stability, these habits of the mind that protect our freedoms, are in a deplorable state today. This is a fitting topic for Veteran’s Day. If you ask soldiers what they are willing to fight for, many might say the constitution. Many might say freedom. Many might say the American way of life. Many might say it’s their buddies who fight beside them.

I believe all would say, to preserve democracy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Occupy American movement in light of this month’s ministry theme of democracy. I wonder what Alexis de Tocqueville would write if he were to visit one of our cities where the Occupy America protests are most visible, New York, Oakland, Chicago.

Maybe like me he might visit the camp at Hemisphere Park, and talk to the folks occupying San Antonio.

I’ve visited them only twice. The first, accidentally. I was walking in my neighborhood and came across a dozen or so people in front of the federal building. It was before the Occupy Wall Street had gotten much publicity, and I hadn’t turned on the news for a day or two. So I didn’t know who they were and certainly couldn’t figure out what they were protesting. A woman with a bull horn was screaming at the cold glass door of the reserve. “A fat lot of good that will do,” I thought. Other protesters had random signs addressing racism, classism, homelessness, ethical eating, environmentalism. It made my head hurt and I found myself agitated by the lack of focus and diffuse energy.

Later, watching The Daily Show, where I’m told most young Americans now get their news, I realized that I had run into our local chapter of the Occupy movement. “Oh… that was the same as that.”

My second encounter was more intentional. I sought them out, offering my assistance if they needed clergy support. It took a while to figure out who to talk to. A few people who told me they were homeless wanted to feed me and gave me a lot of, again, random information. Finally I came across someone who had a notebook and briefcase full of papers. That’s always a good sign. He offered me coffee and a place to sit. Food was just then being delivered by a local church, and some from the food bank arrived a few minutes later. Briefcase man explained to me that they were working with the police and had moved the camp a few times to accommodate other city events. They just wanted to lift up how broken the system has become. I told him I was interested in putting together a religious vigil of support and solidarity. We’ll get to that later.

You may not agree with the Occupy movement’s solutions, but if you think our financial system isn’t broken, you aren’t paying attention. I know I’ve got my list of grievances against banks and financial institutions too large to fail. They have sucked up billions in bailout money, only to turn around with record profits. According to that left wing pinko socialist outlet called CNN MONEY, of 11 trillion committed by us, the American people, 3 billion has been invested back into the economy by the banks. Poof, 8 trillion dollars of your money gone. Google “CNN bailout tracker” and you’ll see for yourself, but you probably have your list of grievances. Maybe it’s just your latest retirement statement.

Americans are starting to understand the positions being taken by Occupy Wall Street, and are becoming more supportive.

In a poll of more than 1,000 Americans taken last week, 36 percent say they agree with the overall positions of Occupy Wall Street, while 19 percent say they disagree. 44 percent are still making up their minds.

At the bottom of this struggle is a fundamental disagreement on the meaning of freedom. Tocqueville discovered an America that shared an understanding of freedom, a meaning that had been hashed out in the two preceding decades by the founding fathers.

Says Kent Greenfield in last week’s Huffington Post, “Americans love freedom … [b]ut just beneath the surface, Americans have radically different views of what freedom means. … On the Tea Party side, for example, stand those who see freedom as liberty from government constraint. These libertarians believe in a wide-open, unregulated marketplace where people can buy, sell, and trade as they want, unfettered by government restrictions. Hence the Tea Partiers rail against “Big Government” and oppose health care reform, worker protection laws, and social security….

“On the other side — personified by the Occupy protesters — are those who,” according to Greenfield, “have a more substantive and robust view of liberty than simply freedom from government.” Instead, freedom means freedom from poverty and economic oppression, freedom from discrimination, freedom to breathe clean air or eat untainted food, freedom to learn in decent schools and universities, freedom from the fear that age, disease, or accident will cause you to lose your home or livelihood.

Franklin Roosevelt best articulated this positive notion of liberty when he argued that citizens had the right to “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear.”

The Occupy protesters are giving us an opportunity to ask some key questions about the “new normal” of American life. Asks Jeff Green in the Wall Street Journal, “Does our future depend on cheap gas or on education and job training? Do our policies reward and encourage investment in education for the long term or consumption in the moment?”

The Occupy Movement is giving us an opportunity to address these problems before they grow worse. But where do we start? In our homes? Workplaces? Do we have to wait for our next chance in the voting booth?

In a movie I watched just the other day, The Departed, gangster Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicolson, hints at a place we can start making changes. “Years ago we had the church. That was only a way of saying – we had each other.” Costello was lamenting the loss of community once held together by local churches. A good place to start healing the heart of democracy is right here, in our local congregation.

Our religious movement isn’t just incidentally interested in democracy, it is one of its core foundations. That ours is a free faith, a shared ministry between clergy and laity, is not accident. Unitarianism is a direct descendent of those Puritan churches Tocqueville talks about as laying the foundation for American democracy. While we no longer claim an oppressive Calvinist theology, we do retain a commitment to fostering democracy within and without our congregations. It’s not just how we govern ourselves, it is a spiritual practice that we pray will help us shape a better world.

In Parker Palmer’s latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, he illustrates that democracy isn’t just the political system that governs our life, but can be a way of life that we cultivate and nurture. He says that churches are one of the primary places that we can do this.

Our chancel drama this morning, UU Boot Camp, addressed this directly. Says the UU drill sergeant: “You will learn to listen to others, benefiting from their knowledge and experience. In the process of making a decision about the maintenance of your church building, your vote counts the same as the vote of a plumber, but if the decision is about plumbing, you should listen to him especially carefully before casting your vote.

For Palmer, the heart of democracy rests in cultivating our ability to listen to each other. He writes that our democratic institutions must be inhabited by citizens and leaders who can hold conflict inwardly, who can convert conflict into creativity, who can allow conflict to pull them into new ideas, actions and each other. Parker says that to respond to twentieth-century conditions we need two things: chutzpah and humility. I’m not going to go into chutzpah. We have enough chutzpah. But humility. That we are not so good at.

By humility Parker means accepting that my own truth is always partial and may not be true at all, “so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to ‘the other,’ as much as I need to speak my own voice with clarity and conviction.” Humility and chutzpah are the qualities of citizenship a healthy democracy needs.

And yet our democracy, at present, is sick to the core. I say this in response to the Five Habits of the Heart that Parker says we need to sustain democracy in this country. These five habits are:

1. Understanding that we are all in this together.

2. Developing an appreciation of the value of “otherness.”

3. Cultivating the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.

4. Generating a sense of personal voice and agency.

5. Strengthening our capacity to create community.


Parker quotes the Sufi poet Hafiz to bring his point home:

Of a great need
We are all holding hands
And climbing.
Not loving is to let go.
The Terrain around here
Is Far too

There is no sense in the media or congress that a sense of togetherness is on the table.

Yet consider the stakes when absolute uniformity trumps creative unity. The Inquisition. Nazi Germany’s final solution. Stalinist totalitarianism. Salem witch trials. “For us or against us” propositions never end well.

Being the kind of person who values creative unity, otherness, tension, individuality, and community, does come naturally to humans. It does not happen by accident. It happens when we intentionally cultivate these qualities around us, when we have opportunities “to reflect on and direct the dynamics of our hearts.”

Parker names four human inventions that help us overcome our instinctual fight or flight responses. Language, art, education, and religion.

He says that when congregations develop embodied answers to the deeper questions such as “What words in our sacred texts are we called to live by?” and “How can we create relationships congruent with what we teach and preach,” new life emerges from old ways of being. Parker writes: “As the first century theologian Tertullian observed, strangers in the ancient world — who had been conditioned to mistrust and despise each other — had one compelling reason to join the early Christian church…. ‘see how they love each other’?” They’re the love people.

Consider how many ways in this congregation we have to practice ways of the heart. We have covenant groups, where we explore topics of spiritual significance in small groups, using the practice of active listening to hear each other’s hearts. If you don’t enjoy small group sharing or that spiritual stuff, don’t join a covenant group and argue that you don’t like that spiritual stuff — perhaps one of our humanist focused gatherings will encourage your mind to a deeper understanding of how difference and diversity creates a stronger, more robust unity. If you don’t like sitting in a 45-minute church chair (do you know why they call them 45-minute chairs?), you can join a group using its hands to make a difference in the world such as our Under the Bridge Group or the group that volunteered yesterday at the Food Bank. Maybe you use your voice to make a joyful noise in the choir, reminding us of the harmonious unity possible n this noisy world. Here we all engage in radical hospitality, welcoming everyone into this circle of creative and boisterous interchange.

Finally, Parker exhorts you to embrace a leadership of the heart that will transform you from spectator to participant. He says that congregations that expect their pastors to always lead the charge sets up an unhealthy performer and audience relationship. Instead, a participatory form of congregational life draws us out of our committees and into the life of our communities. “Out of committees and into the community.” He says even the most powerful pastoral outreach is done member-to-member, not in the pastor’s office. The most enduring organizing is done member-to-member. The most lasting change occurs from within, not from above. Think of all the opportunities our congregation has for cultivating a heart that is worthy of democracy.

If you aren’t clear, democracy requires of us a very high level of compassion and commitment to diversity. There are few places left to practice that level of deep and voluntary engagement with others.

Democracy for our faith isn’t just the way we govern ourselves, it’s a spiritual practice of listening to each other, working toward unity, making decisions based in love and our mission, and then living with both the excitement that comes from unity, and the occasional disappointment when we don’t get our personal way.

Then we take it back into the world, and so I also have a challenge for us today. I just got this e-mail yesterday from The Unitarian Universalist Association’s Witness Ministrires Office. It is a challenge for Sunday, November 20th. We’ve been asked to join a national prayer vigil—a Super Vigil—urging the congressional Super Committee to develop a faithful budget. UU congregations around the country are encouraged to hold community Super Vigils and to call on members of Congress in their local offices to enact a moral budget.

Across the country and around the world, thousands of people have taken to the streets to question the morality of our financial system. The movement that initially started as an occupation of Wall Street has now spread to cities such as San Antonio. It is a movement of people who are demanding a fundamental restructuring of how we distribute the wealth that we, the people, produce.

We may not agree with every tactic of this movement. We may not agree with every demand it has made. We may be able to come up with a better movement, but that’s not the movement of the day.

We’re going to have this prayer vigil, but I don’t want to have it here in the safety of our sanctuary. You’ve noticed the Standing on the Side of Love posters and banners this morning. The UUA has handed us on a platter a campaign with everything we need to make an impact. They sent me off last year to a Standing on the Side of Love media training. They’ve designed the graphics. They’ve even set a date, so I want to take it to the streets — but I need two volunteers to work this thing through for me. I need one volunteer to coordinate a prayer vigil with the Occupy camp downtown. They meet every evening at 7pm for a general organizing meeting, but since I have meetings or wedding stuff every night this week, I need a person to go to them and see what they think about 20 or 30 of us showing up on November 20th with our Standing of the Side of Love t-shirts and a pastor who will lead them in prayer and song — with a message of hope and solidarity.

I need another volunteer to get the message out and publicize it. In other words, I need two volunteers to handle logistics. I’ll handle the worship service: the where, what, and when. If another person will figure out the how. And another person will figure out the who.

On this Veteran’s Day I offer you not a populist patriotic message that fails to incite thought and reason. I do not advocate a mindless unity that ignores real difference. Instead, on this Veteran’s Day I encourage us to honor those who honor us by practicing a democracy of the heart that requires us to choose in our daily lives ways to affirm difference, to embrace creative interchange, and to keep on talking to one another. I offer us a message to take to the streets, to flex our democratic muscles. Today I lift up that quality of American life for which our soldiers and military families sacrifice so much. Let us honor them by encouraging a strong democracy for which they fight and have fought.