Thanksgiving: A Parliamentary Tale


Religion is stories, and music, enacted in ritual.
Our ancestors gathered around campfires.
There would be drumming and dancing, chanting or singing.
And there would be story-telling.
The stories helped them make sense of themselves.
The stories told the people’s history.
They would tell of how the world came to be, and how the plants and animals came to be, and how they themselves, the people, came to be.
They didn’t know how the world, and life, came to be so they guessed, using imagination to fashion a tale that seemed to them credible.
We do the same thing today.
Our story today says that there was a singularity 14 billion years ago that expanded into the universe as we know it.
Our story today is continually revised by the results of experiments that we designed for the purpose of learning to revise in our story.
Our story today has a lot more math in it.
But our story, like the ones our first story-telling ancestors told, has, at its heart, mystery.
We don’t know what made the singularity happen, and our early ancestors didn’t know what force had brought forth the soil, mountains, rivers, sun, moon, stars, plants, animals – and themselves.
It all began in mystery.
And then it unfolded.
When the unfolding involved something that didn’t seem to fit what people could do, what animals or plants could do, what earth or sky or wind or fire or water could do, the story-teller brought another character into the story – with an agency that could do what otherwise couldn’t be done.
We might translate the name of that character as spirit, or Great Spirit.
It was something mysterious, and there were a lot of very different stories about it, but what the stories had in common was: it knew things and wanted things.
It had intentions.
How else could mountains, or people, come to be, except through the intention of some creative force?
(There is an answer to that question. But there’s a lot of math in it.)
The stories and the music and the dance were done in a ritualized way – or were done together with ritual.
These were ways, maybe, our ancestors sought to influence the mystery that had powers, knowledge, and desires.
They were ways to help them feel connected to this mystery with powers and intentions.
It helped them be at peace with the mystery they could not control or influence.
We continue today to gather – have music, a little ritual, and tell stories about where we come from, to help us know who we are.
Different religions have different stories, different rituals, different moral codes, and play different music.
They aren’t so much different paths all headed up the same mountain as different paths headed up different mountains.
But they are all religions – which means they have stories, music, and ritual to convey a sense of who we are, what is our place in the family of things, what is ours to do, what we are here to try to be.
Who are we? Where do we come from? And why do we share in practices of Thanksgiving?
Therefore, let the ritual story of Thanksgiving be told.
And because Unitarians are a story-revising people, continually updating our story in light of new evidence, new understandings, and new sensibilities, the floor will be open to amendments as we go.


STORYTELLER: Our story. The Pilgrims were not the first people to land on the shores of New England. The area was first discovered in 1524 by Giovanni de Verrazzano, who explored the Atlantic Coast from Florida to New Brunswick.

[Delegate 1 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from _______

DELEGATE 1: Mister Chair, I move to amend. Giovanni de Verrazzano did not discover New England. There were people already here. Say instead, “Verrazzano was the first European to explore the Atantic Coast.”

CHAIR: Those in favor of incorporating the amendment, raise your Order of Service. . . . The amendment is incorporated.

STORYTELLER: Let’s back up further, then, and say who did discover this region. This region between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware River, was discovered by peoples who came over the Bering land bridge about 16 thousand years ago. As they split into branches and spread across the continent, one of the branches of these people discovered our region about 14 or 15 thousand years ago.

[Delegate 2 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from _____.

DELEGATE 2: Mister Chair, move to amend.
These people did not discover this region either. There were animals already here. I might mention in particular the Carolina Parakeet, extinct since 1918. I’d nominate them for discoverers of our region.

CHAIR: Perhaps we should remove the word “discover” altogether?

DELEGATE 2: Yes, that’s the amendment I propose.

CHAIR: All in favor of striking the word discover, raise your Order of Service. . . . The amendment is incorporated.

STORYTELLER: As they split into branches and spread across the continent, one of the branches, about 14 or 15 thousand years ago, became the first humans to inhabit our region.
Then in 1524, Giovanni de Verrazzano explored this area.
John Cabot and Jacques Cartier also charted in the vicinity.
In 1609, Henry Hudson made his way up what we call the Hudson River.
These explorers sometimes captured and enslaved natives – and they brought diseases.
Europeans had developed immunity to these diseases, but the natives had not.
The Wampanoag, for instance, in 1600 numbered 50,000 to 100,000, occupying 69 villages scattered throughout the region that is now southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island.
The plague from Europe killed up to two-thirds of them.
Many also were captured and sold as slaves.
In 1614, a Wampanoag boy named Tisquantum was abducted from his village, Patuxet.
Tisquantum was sold as a slave in Spain, then escaped to England.
After several years, Tisquantum was able to get back to Turtle Island (what we call North America).
When he returned to his village, he discovered there were no other surviving Patuxet -- the rest were either killed in battle or died of disease brought from Europe.
In 1620, the Mayflower landed at Plymouth rock bringing 102 Pilgrims.

[Delegate 3 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from ________

DELEGATE 3: Mister Chair, point of factual clarification.
Did these people call themselves “Pilgrims”?

CHAIR: Fact checker?

FACT CHECKER: They did not. Not until the 20th-century did Pilgrim come to refer to the people who came over on the Mayflower. They called themselves “Saints”.

DELEGATE 3: It’s disrespectful to them to call them something they didn’t call themselves. I move we call them Saints.

[Delegate 4 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from ________.

DELEGATE 4: Mister Chair, I oppose this amendment.
It may be disrespectful to them to call them Pilgrims, but it’s disrespectful to us to call them “saints” – because we’re pretty sure they weren’t.

CHAIR: Fact checker, was there some other name?

FACT CHECKER: They were Puritans.

CHAIR: Will the delegate accept an amendment to the amendment, to call them Puritans.

DELEGATE 3: I will.

CHAIR: The amendment is to call the people on the Mayflower “Puritans.” All in favor, raise your Order of Service . . . the amendment is incorporated.

STORYTELLER: These . . . Puritans settled in an area that was once Patuxet, the Wampanoag village abandoned because of the plague.
The English did not see any Wampanoag that first winter at all.
They only caught a rare glimpse of a fleeting shadow of the land's inhabitants until March 1621 when Samoset, a Monhegan from Maine, came to the village.
The next day, Samoset returned with Tisquantum.
Tisquantum had learned English during his abduction, so he could talk to the settlers and serve as a translator.
Tisquantum showed them how to plant corn, fish and gather berries and nuts.
The crop seeds the colonists had brought with them failed, so without Tisquantum – also called Squanto -- help, there probably wouldn’t have been a harvest to celebrate that fall.

[Delegate 5 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from _____

DELEGATE 5: Mister Chair, I move to include what the Puritans wore.

CHAIR: Which was?

DELEGATE 5: Beats me. I was wanting to find out!

CHAIR: Fact man?

FACT CHECKER: The Puritan colonists did not wear black, large hats with buckles on them, nor buckled shoes.
The 19th-century artists who painted them that way did so because they associated black clothing and buckles with being old-fashioned.
Actually, their attire was bright and cheerful.

DELEGATE 5: I move to include that information in the record.

CHAIR: All in favor raise your Order of Service . . . The information is incorporated. Pick up from there.

STORYTELLER: The harvest celebration on 1621 was not a solemn religious observance.
It was a three-day festival that included drinking, gambling, athletic games, and even target shooting with English muskets -- a not-so-subtle way to warn the indigenous peoples that these colonists could shoot them.
The Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, and 90 warriors made their way to the settlement in response to the sounds of the gunfire.
They thought the colonists were under attack, so they came prepared for battle to help defend the colonists.
The Wampanoag were probably not invited, and the settlers were probably rather nervous having them around.

[Delegate 6 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from _____.

DELEGATE 6: Mister Chair, I have a number of questions, and I move to go into Q&A format.

CHAIR: That’s quite and extraordinary parliamentary procedure.

DELEGATE 6: This is quite an extraordinary story.

CHAIR: Very well, there’s a move to suspend the rules for a round of Q&A. All in favor, raise your Order of Service. . . . The motion carries. The delegate may begin questioning.

DELEGATE 6: We’ve heard what the Puritans wore. What did the Wampanoag wear.

STORYTELLER: They were not wearing what is often pictured: woven blankets on their shoulders and large, feathered headdresses.
They wore breechcloth with leggings -- and perhaps one or two feathers in their hair in the back.

DELEGATE 6: How long did the Wampanoag stay?

STORYTELLER: The Wampanoag stayed for three days, during the course of which they contributed a large portion – perhaps most – of the food.

DELEGATE 6: Was the 1621 harvest celebration in November?

STORYTELLER: November would have been much too late.
It was some time between late September and the middle of October.

DELEGATE 6: So the first Thanksgiving, then, was in September or October?

STORYTELLER: The colonists celebrating in 1621 did not call their event "Thanksgiving."
For them, “thanksgiving” was a day of fasting – and this was a feast -- the opposite of their thanksgiving observance.
Calling any event involving white settlers in North America "the first Thanksgiving" overlooks the fact that, for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, Indigenous people throughout Turtle Island (North America) celebrated seasons of Thanksgiving.
'Thanksgiving' is a very ancient concept to the first nations of this continent.
The 1621 celebration was a one-off that was not repeated -- and, in any case, wasn't thought of as a "Thanksgiving."

DELEGATE 6: Last question: What is the source of the misinformation we about the 1621 harvest celebration?

FACT CHECKER: Everything we know about that 1621 feast came from a description in one letter by colonist Edward Winslow. That letter was lost for 200 years.
After it was rediscovered, a Boston publisher, Alexander Young, in 1841 printed up the brief account of the feast.
Young dubbed the episode “The First Thanksgiving.”
White Americans, craving a romanticized story of their past, latched on to it.

CHAIR: Thank you. We conclude our Q&A section, and resume the regular story.

STORYTELLER: The first European-recognized Thanksgiving came in 1637, when Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed a Day of Thanksgiving.
The proclamation focused on giving thanks for the return of the colony's men who had traveled to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they had gone to join in battle.
The thanks that was foremost in Winthrop’s proclamation was thanks for their “great victory”.
The roots of the American Thanksgiving holiday are a celebration of a massacre of hundreds of Native people.
It grew into a general celebration of genocide.
For example, a Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1676 thanks god that the "heathen natives" had been almost entirely wiped out in Massachusetts and nearby.
Thanksgiving proclamations a century later continue to be connected with war.
In the midst of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress issued Thanksgiving Proclamations each year from 1777 to 1784.
Thus was the way paved for Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, to make Thanksgiving a US National Holiday.
Lincoln set the US National Holiday of Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November.

[Delegate 7 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from _____.

DELEGATE 7: Mister Chair, I move to include how the holiday moved from the last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday of November.

CHAIR: Would the Assembly like to hear how the holiday moved from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday? All in favor, raise your Order of Service. . . . Opposed?
The motion carries, so tell us.

STORYTELLER: Five times out of seven, the fourth Thursday in November is the same thing as the last Thursday.
The other two times – like this year – November has five Thursdays, and then the fourth one is not the last one.
The holiday moved from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday in 1941.
Franklin Roosevelt made the change because November 1941 had five Thursdays, and by moving the holiday up a week he gave merchants a longer Christmas shopping season every year with five Thursdays in November.

[Delegate 8 raises hand]

CHAIR: The Chair recognizes the delegate from _____.

DELEGATE 8: Mister Chair, I move the following resolution.
Resolved: That those present at this worship service of Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation give thanks for all the good in our lives and all the blessings we enjoy,
That we remember also the pain and loss of the Indigenous people.
And that our list of gratitudes include thanks that we have the capacity to face the truths of the past, to learn from them to love others better, and love the rich diversity of humanity and of life.

CHAIR: The motion is [repeats motion]. Motions of this type require a second. Is there a second?
All in favor of the motion raise your Order of Service.
The motion carries. Next on our agenda is the reading of the gratitudes.


Sometimes you feel happy.
Sometimes you feel sad.
Those are opposite feelings, and life brings them both, though usually not at the same time.
It can happen.
It is possible to be both happy and sad at the same time.
Have you ever felt happy and sad at the same time?
It can happen, but it’s unusual.
Usually being happy means not beings sad, and being sad means not being happy.
How about these two: being grateful and remembering suffering?
These are not even opposites at all.
They are the natural extensions of each other.
There is much to be grateful for.
Take a breath, and be thankful for air!
Thank you air.
And we have trees and sunshine to be grateful for – the beauty of this world.
We have cardinals and nuthatches and chipmunks.
Thank you, trees!
Thank you, sunshine!
Thank you, cardinals and nuthatches and chipmunks!
Gratitude chases out loneliness.
You can’t be lonely when you’re feeling thankful – because as soon as you say, “thank you,” you have company, companions, friends.
The air, trees, sunshine, birdies and wee beasties: your company.
Compassion also chases out loneliness.
Caring about other people, caring about whether they suffer are treated unfairly, also chases out loneliness.
Compassion brings other people into our lives, even if only in our imagination.
We have company.
Thankfulness recognizes the companionship that is all around us.
Compassion reaches out to extend our companionship outward.
For as the world is our good company, it makes us want to be good company for the world.
So gratitude and compassion – thankfulness and remembering suffering and unfairness – are not opposites.
They naturally go together, for they are both about: having company in our life.
We are not alone.
We have the companionship of everything that we are grateful for and everything we have compassion for.
I remember when I was a kid, the extended family and always a few unrelated guests gatherered around the table for Thanksgiving dinner each year.
My Mom found a recipe for oyster stew one year early on, and liked it so much she made it every year thereafter, so, I know it’s weird, but in my mind, Thanksgiving is associated with oyster stew.
Thank you, Oysters.
Thank you, Mom.
And we’d go around the table and talk about what we were thankful for.
I don’t remember if it ever came up at the Thanksgiving tables where I was, but it seemed a common thing around Thanksgiving to talk about being grateful for how well we’re doing when others are doing so much worse.
That seems weird to me.
I suppose the point is to remind us not to take our blessings for granted, and that’s a good point, but the even better point is to be reminded that our blessings are limited.
As long as anybody isn’t free, none of us are free.
As long as any being isn’t treated fairly, none of us has the blessing of living in a world where everyone is treated fairly.
We have company – we aren’t alone.
We have the great good fortune to be able to care, to have compassion.
Gratitude and compassion are dishes best served together.


What's Your Hospitality Challenge?

Welcome the Stranger, part 3

We are not such a diverse lot ethnically, or in terms of socio-economic class. Yes, we do have members from various ethnicities and economic classes, but not in numbers proportionate to the general population. Nor are the political opinions among us reflective of the general population. Even theologically, people with conservative forms of their religion are probably going to be more comfortable somewhere else.

We say everyone is welcome in our congregation. And we do mean it. At the same time, the people likely to make us uncomfortable themselves feel uncomfortable and don’t come, or don’t come back. We don’t say anyone is unwelcome, yet we can pretty much count on it that the people who stay will be basically like us. And, of course, I understand how good it feels to be among my people, to be with the people who think like me, people among whom I can relax and be myself, and don’t have to be afraid I’ll say the wrong thing.

At the same time, we are called to connect with people who are very other.

When hospitality was our theme three years ago, the issue of On the Journey back then included a list of some example of cases that have in recent years challenged the inclusivity of some Unitarian Universalist congregations. Three years later, it’s worth remembering and reflecting on that list. How welcoming would you be – how welcoming would we be to each of these? Each of these (with the possible exception of the one particularly contemporary example, which I haven't heard about actually occurring at a UU congregation) has at some point in the past for some Unitarian Universalist congregation been a stranger difficult to welcome. Some of them I think we can honestly say are not difficult for us, here and now, to welcome. Others, maybe, remain a bit difficult for us. Consider:
  • A young woman with an infant in her arms who, when the baby starts to whimper during the service, begins breastfeeding;
  • A Native American with long dark hair and tribal dress;
  • A man from a Pentecostal background who waves his hands in the air during the singing of every hymn;
  • A beautifully bedecked woman in a flowered print dress, with matching high heels and purse. She is 6-foot-four, and clearly transgender;
  • A person whose gender cannot be determined, whose nametag displays a unisex name (like “Pat,” “Alex,” “Jamie,” “Riley,” . . . or “Meredith”) and who prefers to be referred to with pronouns “ze,” and “zir”;
  • A person who speaks out of turn and can’t follow the hymns. He seems to be mentally ill;
  • A well-dressed opposite-sex couple: the man has an American flag in the lapel of his suit, and they have their Bibles with them;
  • A homeless man who hasn’t bathed in a week – and whose clothes have evidently been worn daily without being laundered for longer than that;
  • A couple whose smiles reveal that neither of them have enjoyed the benefits of a lifetime of reasonable dental care;
  • A woman with a guide dog;
  • A man who mentions during the social hour that he has just been released from prison – where he was serving time on a conviction for child pornography;
  • A person who, during the social hour, mentions the color of people’s auras;
  • A service man back from Afghanistan, in uniform;
  • A 21-year-old who just graduated from a West coast college and has moved here to find his first job. He knows no one in town, and he is African American;
  • A woman, skin-tone consistent with being middle-eastern, wearing head covering we recognize as the Muslim Hijab;
  • A couple wearing large “Make America Great Again” buttons;
  • A group of Latino youth who speak among themselves in Spanish;
  • A forty-year old man who comes in holding hands with a woman – and his other hand is holding hands with another woman.
Which ones are “no problem” for us – and which ones might be challenging? I’m asking that question at two levels: Which ones might you personally struggle to extend the most gracious hospitality toward? And second, knowing this congregation as you do, which characterizations on that list would some members of the congregation find it difficult to make feel welcome?

Also: which ones are “no problem” only as long as there are only a few of them, or irregularly attending? One or two cases like these each week, is one thing. But what if there were a lot, and they were here week after week after week? What if half the people here on Sunday morning fit one or more of those descriptions I listed? What if that continued to be true for a couple years, with no apparent end in sight? This place wouldn’t be your comfortable club of like-minded friends anymore. What then? Would you then become the one who, not comfortable, stopped coming?

Or would you delight in this challenge to expand your circle of “us”?

All great literature, said Leo Tolstoy, “is one of two stories: Someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town." What happens when a stranger comes to our congregation town? Are we prepared to learn what would feel welcoming to them? Are we prepared to then extend that hospitality? We lit our chalice this morning with words of Bill Schulz:
"It is the mission of our faith to teach the fragile art of hospitality."
May it be so.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Welcome the Stranger"
See also Part 1: You Were Strangers
Part 2: Defined, Yet Porous


Defined, Yet Porous

Welcome the Stranger, part 2

We are here to be in service to something. It need not be vertical. When we speak of a higher authority, or a deeper truth, these are vertical metaphors: up to the higher, down to the deeper. The something that we commit our lives to might be horizontal. I’m not so sure about a higher power, but I believe in a wider power. I stand on a level plane with the others of the community, the nation – the other beings of the ecosystem – of which I am a part.

This something – whatever it is that is the purpose we choose, or accept, for our life – it must have two features, and they are opposites: definition and porousness. Biological systems, ecological systems, and political and economic systems must all have both definition and porousness. They require boundaries -- this is what defines them. At the same time, those boundaries must be porous. For national political economic systems, for instance, the porousness usually includes trade: goods or currency going out and coming in.

Your body sustains your life through these two features. You are bounded and defined by your skin. But if you were sealed off, you’d first suffocate, and if somehow you didn’t suffocate, you’d starve. And if you couldn't eliminate waste, you couldn't stay alive. Things have to come in and go out.

Your skin itself is porous. The average adult has 7 million pores on their skin: 5 million hair follicle pores that secrete oils, plus 2 million sweat gland pores. Your pores secrete and also take in -- as the use of, for example, nicotine patches attests. You have to have boundaries – definition. And there has to be a flow through those boundaries.

(Aside about Hurricanes. Physical objects and phenomena are typically defined by their outer edges. A hurricane, however, is defined by its eye at the center. Hurricanes are definite objects -- we even give them names -- but their outer edge is indefinite. Bodily, the human self is defined by its outer edge: it consists of the skin and what the skin contains, with some vagueness at the orifices. Spiritually, the self is more like a hurricane: defined by its center, with indefinite outward extent.)

The something that we are in service to, whatever it is, needs to be defined, but not too defined. It has to let in the new – that which is not part of it – the strange, the stranger. Letting in the stranger is an essential part of life. In Leviticus 25:23, Yahweh explains:
“But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”
The land and the trees and the water under it and flowing over it – and we ourselves -- belong to the earth, belong to all life.

Yahweh reminds his people over and over, “you were strangers in Egypt; you were strangers in Egypt; you, too, were strangers once.” And then caps it off by telling them, “and you are strangers still.”

It’s a point echoed by Thomas Long in words included in this month’s issue of On the Journey:
“We show hospitality to strangers not merely because they need it, but because we need it, too. The stranger at the door is the living symbol and memory that we are all strangers here. This is not our house, our table, our food, our lodging; this is God’s house and table and food and lodging.”
There will always be things that we call ours. I do not propose the dismantling of the system of property rights. Property rights help give us definition – a measure of security.

We can have our property rights and also recognize the spiritual truth that they aren’t real. They are fictions. They may be useful and necessary fictions, but are fictions nonetheless. The spiritual reality knows no property rights. Everything belongs to that to which we are in service, that wider context – whatever you may conceive that to be -- which gives us a reason for living.

How is your congregation living the spiritual reality that we ourselves are but strangers here, and therefore we must welcome the stranger – love the stranger as ourselves?

Through the decades, I have been with many, many groups of Unitarian Universalists – including many at CUUC – in which the question was asked, “What drew you to Unitarian Universalism?” I’ve found that two basic answers predominate.

The number one answer is some variation of: “At last, hallelujah, I found a place where people think like me.” A number us love this place because, we report, we can be ourselves here. We can be understood by people who share our assumptions, our values – and our prejudices.

The number two answer is the opposite – variations on the theme of: “I love how different people are here. I love the diversity I find – everybody’s got different ideas. It’s very stimulating.”

So we have one prominent answer that's about definition and another that's about porousness. The first answer affirms who we are, supports the definition we give ourselves. And the other prominent answer invokes change and growth into something different – strange and new ideas.

The fact is we do have a fair degree of theological diversity: we have Christians, Buddhists, humanists, pagans, Jews. Some of us are vehemently agnostic – finding it particularly important to emphasize not knowing – and most of us are at least nominally agnostic just in the sense that we’re polite enough not to claim that we’re certain we’re right (even if secretly we feel pretty sure we are). Some of us put the emphasis on what we do believe, and some put the emphasis on what we don’t. We are a diverse lot, theologically.

NEXT: Not Such a Diverse Lot Ethnically or Socio-Economically

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Welcome the Stranger"
See next Part 3: What's You're Hospitality Challenge?
See also Part 1: You Were Strangers


You Were Strangers

Welcome the Stranger, part 1

Reading: "Dwell in an Artist's House"

Leo Tolstoy said:
“All great literature is one of two stories: A man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.”
One may wish that it had occurred to Count Tolstoy that women go on journeys, too – and their stories have as much literary potential. Still, one sees his point. In either case – embarking on a journey or a stranger coming to town – it’s about the encounter with something new, something different, and what that encounter does to us. This is the compelling subject of literature and of life.

Without that encounter with the stranger – whether we head out or the stranger comes to us – life is a flat unchanging monotone. To open ourselves to the stranger – whether it is a human being who “isn’t one of us” or a part of yourself that you haven’t gotten to know very well – that you tend to repress – is to open ourselves to life.

Life is strange, as many have observed. More to the point, life is strangers – one stranger after another – from without and from within – met on our journey, or intruding into our town.

Hence the Torah, the central and most important part of the Hebrew Bible and which Christian tradition knows as the first five books of the Old Testament, urges hospitality to strangers. Exodus 22:21, in the King James Version, reads:
“Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The original Hebrew word is geyr (gare) -- a guest; by implication, a foreigner:--alien, sojourner, stranger. The New Revised Standard Version and the New American Bible translate geyr as “resident alien.” The New International Version and the New Living Translation say “foreigner.” The English Standard Version says, “sojourner.”

But the Jewish Publication Society – the JPS -- translation of the Torah is arguably the one we should use to properly honor the fact that this was originally Jewish scripture long before being appropriated as Christian scripture. JPS uses the same word the King James Version uses: "stranger." So let’s go with that. I’ll be using today the most recent “New JPS” translation of 1985.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
What does this mean for us, today? You may be skeptical -- and I share that skepticism -- about treating this ancient text as a moral authority. After all, the sentence immediately before that says:
“Whoever sacrifices to a god other than the LORD alone shall be proscribed”
– that is, put to death. And I don’t think we are inclined to view that as a moral imperative. Still, there is this emphasis about strangers. The point keeps being repeated. Exodus 23:9 makes the point with additional appeal to empathy:
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Leviticus 19:33 makes the stronger point that not only should we not oppress but should treat them as citizens and “love them as yourself.”
“When the stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Why would the Hebrew people want to emphasize this point this way? What human truth, what psychological or spiritual need, were they tapping into?

When they made it a rule not to sacrifice to other gods, they were saying, “look, we’ve got to stick together here. We are surrounded by Assyrians, Phoenicians, Philistines, Moabites, Hittites, Ammonites and others who will slaughter and enslave us if we can’t stick together and be loyal to each other. All of us sacrificing to the same god, is the most powerful effective way we have of doing two things: (1) expressing our loyalty to the group through demonstrations of dedication to the group’s symbolic authority figure, and simultaneously (2) enhancing and strengthening that loyalty.”

That’s why I think that part is in there. Group loyalty and cohesion was essential for survival. Leviticus also prohibits planting different crops side by side, prohibits wearing cloth woven of two kinds of material, and imposes extensive dietary rules. Why? Because having some restrictions that we all share helps foster group cohesion and loyalty -- even if, or especially if, those restrictions are entirely arbitrary.

But the one about strangers is different. It is in fact the opposite of “let’s be insular and protective and loyal to each other.” It’s precisely because this requirement of hospitality goes against the grain, that I think these passages about strangers are particularly important. It speaks to a spiritual need greater than survival itself – for it speaks to why we should bother to care about whether we survive.

This is part 1 of 3 of "Welcome the Stranger"
See next: Part 2: Defined, Yet Porous
Part 3: What's Your Hospitality Challenge?


Voting is Being Part of Something Bigger

Why We Vote and Why We Don't, part 3

When non-voters are asked why they don’t vote, they usually say something like their vote doesn’t matter: the system is corrupt, or rigged, or won’t make a difference. If the standard for my vote mattering is: the candidate I vote for will win if I vote for them and won’t if I don’t, then these nonvoters are surely right: my vote doesn’t matter.

There was an NPR piece a couple months ago interviewing nonvoters about why they didn’t vote. Buried three-fourths into the 7-minute segment, we hear one interviewee, an African American identified as Raymond Taylor, saying that his vote doesn’t matter because in his district or state the race isn’t close. Then the reporter says:
"He told me the one and only time he voted was in 2008 for Barack Obama. He said he wanted to be part of history. But this idea that his vote doesn't matter because of the political leanings of the state he lives in is something we see across the country.” (NPR, 2018 Sep 10)
And I thought: Wait a minute! You buried the lede! (Raymond Taylor's story isn't even included at all in the print version on the NPR website.) There’s your story: He wanted to be a part of history.

People don’t vote to make a difference; they vote to be part of something meaningful. A single vote didn't make any more difference in 2008 than it has any election since -- but when it meant joining a larger context of meaning, that’s the one and only time Raymond Taylor voted.

We vote to be a part of something. The time Raymond Taylor voted, he did it to be a part of history. For those of us who vote regularly, it need not be historic, but we do it because we see ourselves as part of something bigger than ourselves. We are a part of the body politic, and this means something to us. I add meaning to my life by placing it in the context of something larger called “the people.” Voting is an act of social-spiritual connection.

This makes sense of why it is that nonvoters tend to be poorer, younger, and people of color. These are people who would naturally have a harder time feeling a part of the larger systems that constitute the body politic. As I listened to the NPR story, what I heard nonvoters expressing was that they don't feel connected to their fellow citizens in one big decision-making body. Without that connection, voting is only about, "Will it make a difference?" And it won't.

But when you do feel that connection, voting is not about, "Will it make a difference?" It's about participating in action that affirms, enacts, and embodies connection. Voting is an expression and affirmation of belongingness, of being a part of something bigger than ourselves.

When we don't feel belonging, we're a lot less likely to vote. Kantian fantasies will not persuade nonvoters to vote. They see right through that. If we want more people to vote, we have to think about what would help them feel they belong and are connected in meaningful community with their fellow citizens. Disenfranchised literally means not having the vote – but it’s no coincidence that the synonyms of “disenfranchised” also include powerless, passive, disconnected. When people are disenfranchised, they are disconnected from the apparatus of democracy, and when they feel disconnected, they disenfranchise themselves.

When people feel powerless – feel like the system, the people around them, don’t care about them – then they don’t feel they belong, and when they don’t feel belonging, of course they don’t vote.

That’s no easy thing to fix. We could change the laws and make it easier for people to vote. It's very important that we do that. But there were will still be the problem of people not wanting to vote -- and that's the problem of how to foster belongingness.

The task of creating belonging and a sense of community is our task – not for Tuesday but for the rest of our lives. LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright of Black Voters Matter describe how they do it. You’ll notice that the example I started with was a face-to-face conversation. Community building is a face-to-face enterprise. People who don’t see your eyes don’t see their belonging.

Brown and Albright have six other points of advice.
  1. Don’t parachute in. Connect with local leaders, develop local partnerships, work through the structures that are there. To build community, you find the community that’s there and build on it.
  2. “Let the local people lead. Ask people what they care about and what their community needs.” Listening. As David Oxberg says in this month’s issue of On the Journey, “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.” Listening creates belongingness.
  3. Focus on the primaries. “You can’t just show up in September or October. You have to get your hands dirty in local primaries, which happen much earlier in the year. It’s not sexy work, and the rest of the country isn’t paying attention. But the primary is often what matters most.”
  4. Don’t pack your bags after the race is over. If it’s really about belongingness, then it obviously got to be about not abandoning – not treating people as instrumentalities for your electoral purposes.
  5. Embrace difficult conversations. “We never try to convince people they’re wrong or shame them. That doesn’t work. We listen and validate their feelings. We even admit that sometimes we don’t feel like voting. “
  6. Know the culture. If it’s our tendency – and it is our tendency – to minimize cultural differences, then it’s going to be hard to being open to truly adapting to real cultural differences. So improving our own intercultural sensitivity and competency is part of the picture. (New York Times, 2018 Oct 27)
It’s a lot to bite off, but building belongingness – not just as it relates to voting – is our Unitarian Universalist mission. It’s what we’re here for.

As a first step to thinking about the belongingness that would lead others to vote, let me invite you to reflect on why you vote. You can drop the pretense that your one vote makes a difference. You vote because you belong. Take a moment to reflect on that when you’re in the booth on Tuesday.

A vote is a prayer. I vote, as I pray, as a way of expressing to myself the values I want to live by, of reminding myself of the gratitudes that ground me and the hopes that direct me. Prayers and votes don’t affect God or the world, except insofar as they affect me. They change me. And my life, in myriad ways, then changes the world.

So I invite you cast your ballot bread crumb upon the waters.
You, alone, cause no one’s victory or defeat,
but you join with something larger that does.
You participate in the infinity of history,
Lifted out of yourself into the shared soul of
115 million voters,
7.6 billion humans on the planet,
all life that ever was or ever will be.
World without end amen.

This is part 3 of 3 of "Why We Vote and Why We Don't"
See also
Part 1: The Consequentialist Rationale for Voting
Part 2: The Kantian Rationale for Voting


The Kantian Rationale for Voting

Why We Vote and Why We Don't, part 2

As discussed in part 1, from a consequentialist point of view, the rationale for voting is very weak. We turn now to the other major school of ethical theory: deontology, most notably the ethical thought of Immanuel Kant.

It boils down to: Ask yourself, what if everybody did that? If you wouldn’t like the result of everyone doing that sort of action, then you shouldn’t do it. You wouldn’t want to live in a world in which everyone lied, cheated, or stole, so you shouldn’t lie, cheat, or steal. The way Kant put it was:
“So act that the maxim of your action can be willed a universal law for all.”
A Kantian rationale for voting might look attractive: we ask, what if everyone did that? What if everyone were to stay home and not vote? The results would be disastrous. Therefore, we have a duty to vote.

But consider the parallel argument: "What if no one was a farmer? We’d all starve!"

Just because we need some people to do a thing doesn’t mean that we need everyone to do that thing.

Here’s an idea that might have occurred to you. However you reason about your situation, there are several thousand or several million others who are in basically your position and will reason the same way. So if you decide to vote, then all those other people, basically like you, will make the same decision. So, you’re not just deciding for you. Let’s explore that.

A striking example of this line of reasoning is described in Milton Mayer's 1955 book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45. The book includes the story of one German who is rueful about insufficiently resisting the Nazis in 1935. The man declares flatly:
"The world was lost one day in 1935, here in Germany, and it was I who lost it."
The man tells how, in 1935, Germany adopted the National Defense Law. The man was employed in a defense plant at the time, and the new law required him to take an oath of fidelity. The man opposed it in conscience, was given 24 hours to think it over, and, in those 24 hours, changed his mind. He took the oath of fidelity to the Nazis -- and, in so doing, he recounts years later, "I lost the world."

There was certainly coercive pressure. Had he not taken the oath he'd have lost his job. He would also, he knew, have been blackballed from subsequent employment. He could have left the country and found work elsewhere, but he rationalized that he might be able to help some people from "within" -- whereas leaving the country would make him powerless to help any friends in trouble. How did the oath of one defense-plant employee "lose the world"? The man explains:
"There I was, in 1935, a perfect example of the kind of person who, with all his advantages of birth, in education, and position, rules (or might easily rule) in any country. If I had refused to take the oath in 1935, it would have meant that thousands and thousands like me, all over Germany, were refusing to take it. Their refusal would have heartened millions. Thus the regime would have been overthrown, or indeed, would never have come to power in the first place. The fact that I was not prepared to resist, in 1935, meant that all the thousands, hundreds of thousands, like me in Germany were also unprepared,... If my faith had been strong enough in 1935, I could have prevented the whole evil."
I appreciate the man’s remorse. There’s something admirable about his willingness to take on the whole responsibility for Nazism. But it’s just not true.

The day I decided to become vegetarian was not a day -- or even a decade -- that hundreds of thousands of demographically, economically, and educationally similar people also decided to become vegetarian. It's one thing to test the ethics of an action by asking yourself "what if everyone did that?" -- but it's quite a jump from there to expecting that somehow any sizable number of people actually will do whatever you decide to do.

If I enter my voting booth and have a spontaneous impulse to change my mind from the major party candidate I had been planning to vote for and instead vote for a minor party candidate who has been polling at about 2 percent, that candidate will still finish with about 2 percent of the vote. In fact, I did that once – back in the ‘80s – and the result was: nothing. The spontaneous impulse I had was also had by, to all appearances, no one else.

Moral decisions made in individual isolation are, unsurprisingly, individual and isolated. On the other hand, moral decisions that lead to organizing and building a movement, and pouring a lot of energy into persuading others – that’s something very different. But it's a Kantian fantasy to think that thousands of other people will reach a given conclusion if and only if you do. It's true that thousands of other people will reason the way that you do. But this doesn't mean your reasoning caused theirs -- or that if you change yours, then they will change theirs. To hold that one should vote because millions or at least thousands will reach the same decision simply by you deciding it by yourself is to indulge in Kantian fantasy.

Neither Kantian ethics nor consequentialism provide us with a reason to take the trouble to vote. If ethical argument were all it takes, then increasing voter participation would be easy, and ethical arguments look so tempting because they offer an easy way. But it’s the hard way that will work.

NEXT: The Hard Way

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Why We Vote and Why We Don't"
See next: Part 3: Voting is Being Part of Something Bigger
See also
Part 1: The Consequentialist Rationale for Voting


The Consequentialist Rationale for Voting

Why We Vote and Why We Don't, part 1

In 2008 I was living in Gainesville, Florida. On Tue Nov 4 that year, I went to my local precinct and voted. When I came home, I wrote this poem that expresses the growing sense I have had of the sacred act of prayer that we call voting.
November Tuesday

It felt like church: sacred, moving.
Gathering at the temple/precinct with my neighbors
I say hello to the greeter, am known, identified.
I receive my order of service, the ovals to fill in.
My neighbors and I come here because we, the people, have work to do.
This is our liturgy, “the work of the people.”

Many of us have studied the scripture
The lectionary prescribes:
Press articles, candidate records and statements.
We are ready for worship.

I go into the confessional booth and pray.
Before I pick up the felt-tip marker,
I bring my palms together,
take a moment,
feel the touch of god.

I am aware of my expansive vastness,
My tiny smallness,
And the sacrament before me,
this paper wafer transubstantiated body politic of christ,
this marker-ink wine, the black blood of the people, chosen, choosing.

I know the math.
The chance I’ll die in a traffic accident driving to the polls
is hundreds of times greater
than the chance any candidate I vote for will win by one vote.
Determining an outcome cannot be the reason to take this communion.
A vote is a prayer, and changes things the same way:
by changing the one who makes it.

I cast my ballot bread crumb upon the waters,
Causing no one’s victory or defeat,
Joining with something larger,
Participating in the infinity of history,
Lifted out of myself into the shared soul of
113 million voters,
7.6 billion humans on the planet,
all life that ever was or ever will be.
World without end amen.
How do we get more people to vote? Do you really want to know? There is a way, but it isn’t easy. LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright are co-founders of the Black Voters Matter Fund. They’ve seen success in turning nonvoters into voters. They write:
"This summer, we chatted with a nursing assistant at a restaurant in Americus, Ga., who had just decided to sit out the midterms. We asked her a few questions and learned that some of her family members didn’t have good access to health care. One even had to drive some 100 miles to get to the nearest hospital; eight rural hospitals have closed in Georgia since 2008, more than in any other state except Texas and Tennessee. We asked her, 'Do you know what’s happening with Medicaid?' She didn’t. So we explained that if Georgia followed the more than 30 states that have expanded Medicaid, rural hospitals could stay open and it could create thousands of new health care jobs. Her face lit up. She walked across the street to our bus and filled out a voter registration form. And she persuaded her friend to do the same." (New York Times, 2018 Oct 27)
They have a model and an approach that is one version of what we’re going to have to do to increase voting rates. It’s not an approach that we could start on today and make any difference in Tuesday’s turn-out.

For Tuesday, there’s still time to sign up for phone banks, and groups that are organizing rides to the polls. And if you’re going to be doing those things, bless you, bless you.

There’s also the task of removing barriers to voting. "Hundreds of thousands of nonvoters want to vote, but can't." (NPR) Restrictive voter ID laws, registration difficulties, or ineligibility due to a criminal record are true and real problems. We could work for removing those specific legal barriers. Let felons and ex-felons vote. Allow on-site, day of voting registration. Expand early voting opportunities -- ultimately we could have election MONTH instead of election DAY, with polls open 24 hours a day for 30 days. Once the dust settles from Tuesday’s elections, we face the task of implementing those changes.

But there’s still a deeper issue. A lot of nonvoters just don’t want to vote – and that’s where the long slow work in various forms comes in. LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright’s organization is one good example, and there are others. It’s the work of building belonging and community.

First, let’s look some of the usual arguments about why people should vote, and why those arguments fail. The truth is, they’re lousy arguments. The great ethical theories fail to provide a compelling argument in favor of voting.

Take, first, consequentialism. Consequentialism says: estimate what the consequences of your action would be. An act is good if it produces good results – or could reasonably be expected to probably produce good results.

The consequentialist has a hard time justifying voting. The opportunity costs alone would seem to make it not worth it. The time it takes to go to and the polling place, wait in line – which might be a long line – and finally fill out and cast your ballot – not to mention the time spent familiarizing yourself with the issues and the candidates – all of this takes time that you could have spent earning money -- or volunteering at a soup kitchen – or playing video games. The chances that any candidate you vote for will win by exactly one vote are vanishingly small. More good would come from spending that time doing anything that produced any good at all.

Sometimes people say they vote for the sake of the winner’s mandate – either to improve the mandate of the one they vote for, or diminish the mandate of the candidate they don’t like. But the odds of one vote having any effect at all on the mandate are as vanishingly small as the chances of one vote determining the outcome. Plus: studies by political scientists find that a winning candidate’s ability to get things done is not affected by how large or small margin of victory is. The mandate argument doesn’t wash.

From a consequentialist point of view, the rationale for voting is very weak.

Next: Kantian Ethics

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Why We Vote and Why We Don't"
See next: Part 2: The Kantian Rationale for Voting
Part 3: Voting is Being Part of Something Bigger
Images from Shutterstock, free version by permission