"The Politics of Love"

September 19, 2004
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein


READING from "More Than Enough" Samuel Wells

The vocation of the church is to celebrate the politics of love. That may sound curious. What does the gentle, touching gift of love have to do with the ugly, underhand machinations of politics?

Most people think of politics as regrettable but necessary business. Necessary, because we live in a world of scarce resources, there are many of us, and our needs, interests and desires conflict. We need agreements as to the fair distribution of these limited goods and an established authority to ensure the policing of those agreements. It is regrettable, because in the fight over these scarce resources, each of us fears being revealed as greedy, insecure, envious and deceitful.

Now imagine a different kind of politics. First, consider the things that really matter in this world. St. Paul lists them: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is not need for an unseemly scrap over the distribution of these things, because they are not in short supply. Yet I can have enormous sums of money, as many clothes, houses, cars and university degrees as I like, but if I don' t have the things St. Paul is talking about, the other things are no good to me. And if I have love, joy, peace and the like, it doesn' t matter how much I have of the other things. St. Paul' s world still involves politics – but politics of a different kind. Instead of carving up a limited cake, politics becomes the shared discernment of the best use of God' s gifts. It is no longer a zero-sum game. My good no longer requires your loss, because the things we want are things that everyone can have.

THE SERMON "The Politics of Love" Rev. Victoria Weinstein

You thought you' d never hear me say this, but I think we owe the Reverend Jerry Falwell a thank you. Rev. Falwell, as you know, is a very conservative Christian religious leader of enormous fame and influence who has been campaigning very actively for President George Bush' s re-election. Although Mr. Falwell has gone to battle with the IRS about his right to remain the head of a tax-exempt religious organization while making openly partisan pitches on the road, he makes a good point when he says that the separation of church and state does not mean that people of faith cannot discuss politics amongst themselves. And he' s right. As much as he irks us, and as often as he teeters on the line between the appropriate separation of church and state (and crosses it!), we ought to appreciate how he challenges all people of faith to confront the reality that when we get together to work on our souls, our politics will inevitable, and rightfully, become part of that work.

When Jerry Falwell said this past July that "It is the responsibility of...every evangelical Christian, every pro-life Catholic, every traditional Jew...to get serious about re-electing President Bush," he had every right to make that statement, sure. Because he did not make that remark from the pulpit of a church, he was fairly well within his constitutional freedom of speech. However, Mr. Falwell riled up a good number of religious Americans by suggesting – and he has said it outright in other places – that if you want to get right with God, you' d better get right with Jerry Falwell at the voting booth!

FaithfulAmerica.org, an on-line coalition of religious people of all flavors (progressive Christian evangelicals among them), circulated a petition that I have signed, and that ran in the NY Times under the headline "God Is Not a Republican. Or a Democrat." It said, in part:

"We believe that the claims of divine appointment for the President…and assertions that all Christians must vote for his re-election constitute bad theology and dangerous religion. We believe that sincere Christians, and other people of faith can choose to vote for President Bush or Senator Kerry – for reasons deeply rooted in their faith.
We will measure the candidates by whether they enhance human life, human dignity, and human rights: whether they strengthen family life and protect children; whether they promote racial reconciliation and support gender equality; whether they serve peace and social justice; and whether they advance the common good rather than only individual, national, and special interests.
We also admonish both parties and candidates to avoid the exploitation of religion or our congregations for partisan purposes." (emphasis mine)

So far this petition has been signed by tens of thousands of Americans. I imagine that there are other tens of thousands of Americans who think it' s a load of hooey. My uncle tells me that one distraught Democrat in Florida said she thinks that the hurricanes are God' s punishment for what Florida did to Al Gore in 2000. Obviously, bad theology and dangerous religion is not the exclusive property of any one party.

I decided to call this sermon "the politics of love" a while ago, but I' ve gone back and forth on that title many times. "The politics of love" sounds so naïve, so ineffectual, sentimental and perhaps dated, like those old commercials that show people holding candles and swaying together in a circle, singing about how they' d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony (or was it that they wanted to buy the world a Coke?). I mentioned the title to a woman I met at the theatre last night, who then remarked, "There is no love in politics." And I said, "Well, we' re a church. If what you say it true, we' re not supposed to accept that. We' re supposed to consider every aspect of our lives through the lens of love and compassion." I think she thought, "Well, what else can you expect from one of those mushy liberals seven weeks before the election?"

Politics is a word with a real bite to it. We know that when we are talking about politics, we are talking about policy, and of course policies are real entities – also with bite – that have the power to enhance or to demean lives of individuals, families and communities. So when it comes to politics, we had better pay attention, stay engaged and stay savvy. That' s good citizenship. But good churchmanship -- and good churchwomanship -- means that we had better stay engaged in the heart as well as the head.

My pastoral concern is this: If our sense of how policy should be shaped is not primarily influenced by our central religious commitment to love, we are hopelessly compartmentalized human beings whose souls are oriented one way in private and another way in public. And that is never a good for anyone' s soul! We are here in church this morning, I hope, partly out of a desire to be integrated beings, as whole as we can be, where no aspect of our existence lives in irreconcilable hostility with any other aspect. Integrity is central to our sense of what it means to be religious people. Acknowledging this truth, then, we see that not only is it naïve to wish for a world where political leaders are not influenced by their religious beliefs, it is oppressive, and would take away much richness from our shared lives.

There are plenty of politically involved individuals here. We would certainly not wish for them or for our communities that they check their religious convictions at the door of their political lives, would they? Of course not! But although Unitarian Universalists tend overall to be very politically engaged folks, and although the UU national leadership is heavily involved in political activism – social justice work -- and we maintain a vibrant Washington Office that lobbies for and against legislation, lots of UUs (and other religious liberals) get real uneasy when conservative religious people do the exact same thing. It' s a perfect example of the old Bible story of seeing the speck in your brother' s eye before removing the beam from your own. And I think we' d get back a lot of energy as a movement if we retired that particular inconsistency from among us and our sense of how the world works. That is how the world works.

Politics and religion are not strange bedfellows; they' re inevitable bedfellows. They' re twin brothers -- or sisters -- if you like. If we hold the right of conscience as a central Unitarian Universalist value (and we do, and we have done so throughout all our centuries-long history), we must not fall into the trap of saying that someone' s conscience is all wrong because it reaches a different conclusion than "mine." To be able to disagree while not simultaneously accusing the other guy of being plumb crazy is one of the central commitments of the politics of love. In the politics of love, stridency is replaced with graciousness. The force of one' s maturity and strength of presence impresses just as much as, or perhaps more than all the debating points one scores.

I am convinced that in this world of extreme stances, those who wish for a truly tolerant world – one characterized by respectful appreciation of difference and profound commitment to equality, freedom and basic comforts for all the world' s peoples – will win more converts by who they are than by what they say. This might be incredibly naïve, but I am hoping. We are all so overloaded by verbiage, debates, "he said/he said" finger-pointing and counter-attacks. Won' t this fashion end some day? Aren' t you becoming numb? Don' t you sometimes feel that you' re drowning in conflicting reports and being led by your ear down a dirt road to watch schoolboys fighting and spitting at each other? I have felt that often, and have felt dirtied by it. I believe many others feel the same way and that over time, more and more people will be drawn to the politics of love,

the practice of civility, of listening,
of building bridges,
of accepting and claiming the imperfection
within your own camp as well as the others' ,
of accountability and nurturing alliances of all kinds.

I want this election to be over and that whoever wins --- and I hope whoever does win the election wins definitively, with unprecedented voter turn-out – I hope whoever wins takes on the mantle of leadership (or re-assumes it) with a spirit of humility and a commitment to building relations within this nation and outside of its borders. This may be too much to hope for. Believe me, my cynical days almost equal my hopeful days. But if our leaders cannot figure out how to do politics from a place of love, all good people of faith can do is to stay involved, stay loudly and persistently involved, and keep insisting that we would like our domestic policies and our national presence to be founded in the politics of love.

We do hope these things year after year, generation unto generation. This is part of our tradition and our heritage as free church people. If you would like to have a theological understanding of why, it is because our European and early American forebears, in centuries where the most popular form of Christianity taught and preached God' s judging and damning nature – these men and women intuited and experienced a loving divine presence at the heart of creation, and developed an idea that human beings were created in that divine presence to do works of love on Its behalf. And for centuries, those same kinds of men and women believed that kingdoms and governments should mirror the benevolence of that God, and should feel themselves obligated to ease the burdens of all citizens to the extent of their power to do so. They felt that the heart of the gospel was not a message about the end of the world, but a message about how to live in this one, and they felt themselves drawn by Jesus' preferential option for the poor and oppressed.

You see, all of the political positions duking it out there today have their origins in theology. It helps to understand that, and not to hate or despair of it. And, for the record, I do not pin my hopes on either of the dominant political parties in this country, or on Washington. I think the states need to talk with Washington about how they want us to do business, and the cities should talk to the towns, and the neighbors should talk to each other, and the children and the parents and the grandparents will talk amongst themselves and thus change the world. When it comes to government – and this is true for my theological beliefs as well -- I don' t expect any miracles from the top down.

For those of you who would like a practical blueprint for how to live out the politics of love, I think we have a powerful resource in our own Principles, found in your hymnals:

When discerning whether a leader is worthy of your vote, ask yourself: Does this person exhibit a commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and support policies that put muscle behind that commitment? Do they impress you as a just person, a compassionate person with concern for equality? Is this person accepting of various viewpoints, does he strike you as someone who sincerely respects individual rights of conscience? Does he or she promote democracy here and abroad, encouraging involvement and investment in the democratic process by all American citizens, and does he or she build coalitions that can lead to a better sense of world community with shared goals and mutual concern between nations? Finally, in accordance with our seventh principle, does this leader exhibit a sense of respect for all forms of life on earth, and does he or she take environmental concerns seriously when making other decisions?

In Massachusetts, only 9.5% of registered voters voted in the presidential primary, and 68% voted in the presidential election. That' s good compared to the national average, but it' s not good enough. Perhaps above all, we can say in this church that we believe in the full participation of every eligible voter in this coming election (and, in fact, in all elections) because we believe that every voice in our community has a right to be heard, in however small or symbolic a manner. Please bring this message to those men and women you know who are disaffected and claim their vote doesn' t count, so why bother? We believe that the vote counts because the voter counts.

We govern our own congregations through the democratic process because we believe in the value of grappling with big decisions together, and we believe in the value of hearing from each and every one. In our own congregations we do this work care-fully, as best we can, heart-fully, and often within the bonds of covenant. Let us do that work in the world with no less heart, no less care, and as living incarnations of the highest call we know, which is the call to love.

I wish you well as we enter the final heat of election season. May we all bring a gracious, respectful and mature presence to the coming weeks, as we model the politics of love in a world that most certainly needs it. I earnestly pray that we will. Amen.