With Malice Toward None

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto
With Malice Toward None

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How do we move forward together as such a divided nation? How do we proceed “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” in Abraham Lincoln’s words, while also striving for unity? The Braver Angels organization, which spins its name from another of Lincoln’s phrases, urges us to imagine and create a nation that does not let its deep differences tear it apart. Our own Healing the Divide group strives for the same, using some of Braver Angels’ resources. And yet there are voices within our own Unitarian Universalist communities that question whether unity is even compatible with the freedom, equality and justice we faithfully seek.

In advance of the service, Amy invites you to consider carefully the “With Malice Toward None” pledge proposed by Braver Angels, and sign it if your conscience calls you to do so.

Worship leader: Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Worship Associate: Mary Grebenkemper

Special music: Veronika Agranov-Dafoe, piano

Follow along in the order of service: bit.ly/uucpa_oos_20201108

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

Chalice Lighting                    by the Rev. Christian Schmidt                

This is a call to worship for the joyful, the brokenhearted, the fearful, the exhausted.

For whatever you are feeling right now, may this be a place for you to find what you need. You are welcome here, in this gathering where we come to feed our souls, heal our hurts, and just be together.

For too long now, we have experienced the things that divide us: poverty and oppression, unjust laws and policies, violence and imprisonment.

We cannot fix these in a day, or even a year, but we can fix them and we must. Because we know that despite divisions, despite the triumphs or defeats of candidates and parties, our destinies, all of them, remain deeply intertwined.

Liberation must be for all people if it is truly liberation. As long as one soul suffers needlessly, we cannot rest. As long as our planet screams out in pain, so will all who live on her.

So for all the feelings, the emotions, the pains and hurts, the joy and celebration, you have in your heart and body and mind today, you are welcome here.

Here may you find rest and renewal, partners for the journey, time to contemplate and energy for action.

Let us worship.

Centering Words                        by the Rev. Sue Phillips          

Creating beloved community is messy, gritty, fearsome, and hard.

This is the time we have been practicing for.

The only faithful response to this moment of extraordinary division is to show ourselves and our communities that another way is possible. The antidote to polarizing fear is love.  The antidote to alienating isolation is connection.

My friends, we were made for this work. And now we have to actually do it.

Reading                    by Bruce Olstad       

My father and I had a difficult relationship from the time I was a child through his passing in 2011. I don’t think either of us ever understood the other. I do know we loved each other, each in the way that was possible for us. But for a time in my adulthood, and for a good number of the years since he passed, I was content to remember only the difficult things about him…. 

But now, looking back, I find that there were many truths about life and about living he tried to show me along our way, for better or worse. And I find myself wanting to hold a more integrated version of him.…

This has been a difficult time in our nation. Many of us (myself included) have been, are, too willing to not see the things about ‘the other side’ that are true, and positive, and connected to our common humanity….This coping mechanism is understandable. . … But there will come another time soon, when we will have to pick up the threads of a more nuanced view and move forward.

There are things that will not be forgivable. Nor should they be. Returning to my father, for instance, I can not even say ‘….he never voted against my rights.’ He absolutely did vote against my rights. And I doubt very much I will ever come to forgiveness on that point. But—and this is very important—I have come to a place of understanding and acceptance about it. I think this is the most we can expect of ourselves. An expectation, yes, but also an obligation—an obligation we have to each other, as individuals and as a nation….

…May we see it through together.

Reflection                  by Mary Grebenkemper

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently said, “We should be humble about generalizing across groups of people, especially people we’ve never met.”  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields quipped, “You can’t make generalizations about people you do know; you have to make generalizations about people you don’t know.”

Most of us do make generalizations about people, unless we catch ourselves.

With the heated polarization going on in our country, it’s easy for the amygdala part of our brains to get engaged for fighting, especially when we feel threatened.  Then we go into our separate tribes, demonizing other groups of people who don’t think, feel, or have the same goals as we.

I’m a member of our church’s Healing-the-Divide group. Yet, I found myself so frustrated by the continued ugliness between our polarized sides and events that trigger my anger that I almost quit several times.  Our group also has one big problem.  We are in a bubble with only our side of the divide represented.

Member Michael Abramson sent our group an email with a link to Braver Angels in the spring of 2020.  Several of us checked out online Zoom events through the Silicon Valley Alliance and the parent organization.  Recently our group gathered with Braver Angels from the opposing side in a Living Room Conversation, which was very productive.

I joined Braver Angels in June 2020 and made a personal commitment to stay with them even though I continue to struggle with frustration and anger triggers. I stay with them because Braver Angels is truly a group where Republican-leaning voters and Democratic-leaning voters come together and speak to one another respectfully, maintaining the dignity of the other person.  There is no agenda, no trying to change the other’s mind.

After the divisive 2016 election, co-founders David Blankenhorn, Bill Doherty, and David Lapp gathered Trump and Clinton supporters in South Lebanon, Ohio to see if Americans could disagree respectfully, and, perhaps, find common ground.  These co-leaders modeled and taught skills of Marriage and Family Counselors so participants could listen, hear, and understand without preparing retorts and to ask questions to learn without going for gotchas.  The workshop went so well that people from opposite sides became close friends even when they still disagreed with each other.  This group decided to take these workshops across the country, to depolarize our divided country, so they formed Better Angels, later changed to Braver Angels.

Braver Angels was inspired by the words of Abraham Lincoln who called on Americans to summon the “better angels” of our nature and find the courage to pursue a more perfect union “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right.”  Their programs include red/blue workshops, skills training classes, debates, and media promotion. 

Knowing that the 2020 election would be difficult for our country, Braver Angels planned a national event called “WITH MALICE TOWARD NONE,” calling on religious congregations and civic groups to take this to their communities.  It’s so easy to slip into gloating when one’s candidate has won an election, or to feel despondent or rage and seek revenge when one’s candidate has lost. “WITH MALICE TOWARD NONE” is designed to anticipate and ward off these reactions.  It is designed to comfort one another and to heal.  

To learn more about Braver Angels, go to https://braverangels.org/.

Sermon           With Malice Toward None        Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Weeks before the election, a member of the congregation made a request I could not refuse: that I look at the website of Braver Angels, the organization Mary just told us about, and consider their suggestions. These were to take their pledge and to dedicate the first service to the process of reaching out to those who wanted a different outcome from the presidential election.

In congregations more evenly divided than ours, this means having these conversations among their members. Things are harder for them and easier for them. Harder because they had to go into their sacred spaces this weekend knowing that they were giving thanks for the outcome among beloveds who were grieving it, or that they were bringing their grief and despair to their spiritual community as others were singing “hallelujah” for the same events. Easier because they must face bravely a conflict that more homogenous congregations can pretend is not there. More homogenous congregations can say that’s a problem for another time, another place—one’s neighborhood or family gatherings or the op ed pages—but church should be a comfortable place.

Well, as you’ve heard before from this pulpit, church isn’t supposed to be comfortable. We celebrate together here, yes, we hold each other’s sorrows here, we comfort each other, but we also, with love and respect, challenge each other. And maybe one day after the outcome of the election is too soon for you to accept a challenge. Maybe right now you need to simply be with your response to this election and not engage with others whose response is diametrically different. If so, please just tuck my thoughts away for another time when feelings are not running so high.

The pledge, taken from Lincoln’s Inaugural, is called “With Malice Toward None.” That in itself seems like a pretty low bar. I mean . . . malice. Malice is “the desire to cause pain, injury, or distress; the intent to cause harm without legal justification or excuse.” Okay. I think we can manage that. Or, on the principle that feelings are amoral and it’s only our actions that we must govern, we may even feel a rush of desire to cause our political opposites distress, as long as we don’t act on it.

I note that even Lincoln was not such an angel in his powerful Second Inaugural Address (which I encourage you to read—it is only six paragraphs long, a masterpiece of writing and statesmanship). For the most part, his speech is a call for healing, even as the war rages on. But there’s one line that is a tour de force of passive-aggression.

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

I believe my Generation Z child would say at this moment: “Burn!”

So let us strive to set aside our snark. And ask, in all sincerity, the question: How do we move forward together as a country? I think we can agree that we have not done so very effectively in the last four divided years. Can we do better?

And what does moving forward together even mean? Here are some things it does not mean, in my book:

It does not mean: Agreeing on everything. Dissent and disagreement are part of any serious political conversation, and no country can keep progressing without them.

It does not mean: Compromising on everything. Politics is the art of compromise, but each of us may have (I hope we do have) some non-negotiable items.

It does not mean: Ceasing the struggle for justice. We keep working for what we believe to be right

It does not mean: Refraining from opposing our neighbors’ wishes. Following our consciences means that we may be working toward different aims. That is good and proper.

It does not mean: Accommodating our opponents so much that we cause harm to the oppressed, nor pressuring the oppressed to tolerate yet more harm from a country that has devalued them for so long.

It does not mean: Denying the harm that has been done.

We must acknowledge that the decisions that lie before us are life or death. People on different parts of the political spectrum would say, life and death:

  • For children in cages
  • For transgender people whose very existence is questioned
  • For babies still forming in utero
  • For those particularly at risk from police violence: people with disabilities, Native Americans, African Americans
  • For people at risk of COVID, who are threatened, depending on your view, either from the insistence on wearing masks and keeping our distance, or from the refusal to.

So, if the stakes are so high and moving together does not mean setting aside these life-and-death concerns, what does it mean? What is the aim of Braver Angels? In my own words, I would say:

It means listening.

It means asking genuine questions rather than assuming what people believe or lecturing them on what they must believe.

It means treating one another with dignity and respect—and please note that respect, here, is an action, not a feeling. We need not respect someone’s beliefs in order to treat the person respectfully.

It means speaking for ourselves, not for anyone else,

And it means asking our conversation partners to speak for themselves, and not concluding that they speak for “all evangelicals,” “all black people,” “all Trump voters,” etc.

It means unbundling the convictions that we imagine are all one package, and acknowledging that they might not always go together. Bible-believing Christian does not equal narrow-minded does not equal anti-gay does not equal authoritarian parent does not equal disregarder of facts does not equal Republican. Atheist does not equal narrow-minded does not equal permissive parent does not equal anti-abortion does not equal rule-breaker does not equal disregarder of facts does not equal Democrat.

It’s a tightrope walk, all right. As David Blankenhorn, one of the founders of Braver Angels, wrote on Election Day,

Most voters in both parties believe that America is seriously threatened by bad actors. Most of us even view this risk as close to existential: If the wrong side wins the election, “America will not recover.”

In such dire circumstances, should I compromise with what I view as an ultimate danger? Should I seek to reach understandings and split differences with those who would cripple, perhaps permanently, the America I know and love? Surely a plausible and morally defensible answer to these questions is “no.”

In fact, we see this “no” all around us today.  A progressive friend tells me that, as an African American, he has no interest in seeking common ground with people whose views threaten his life. 

A conservative friend tells me that it’s worse than pointless to seek accommodations with people who would take away basic American freedoms. . . .

In one of Samuel Beckett’s [works], the character says, “I can’t go on, I will go on.” Can both things even be possible? 

(“Whether Biden or Trump wins, Americans will face hard work to unite after the election,” published 11/3/20, accessed 11/8/20)

–Blankenhorn asks. I don’t know how we do it either. But I know why we must.

We can narrow our circle of friends to those we agree with. We can subtly or not-so-subtly let opponents know that they don’t belong in our congregations. We can refuse to talk to Uncle Harold. We can even talk about seceding, or urging other states to.

But where does this all lead, in the end? We are here, together. We share a country, and if we no longer shared a country, we would share a planet.

Look at the countries that have chosen division and see how that has worked out. Maybe for some it has, but others have ended up as the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, each sunk in its bunker, firing at the other. Or as India and Pakistan. Or as Israel and the Palestinian territories. Our opponents don’t go away just because we stop trying to talk to them.

And where do radical solutions leave the minority? My sister in New Orleans says Louisiana needs states like California helping to push the country in another direction, so please, California, don’t leave. No doubt many conservative Californians would make the same argument against the former Confederate states: please, Louisiana, stay!

Our fates are intertwined. And against all odds, we decided to form one nation, one government. After a civil war ripped it apart, we knitted it back together, sloppily and without sufficient regard for justice or peace. We’re still working on doing it better.

As Blankenhorn says, “Democracy is government by talk. The goal is to keep the conversation going, even when doing so seems pointless, too painful to bear or likely to produce outcomes that many view as intolerable. Alternatives to government by talk do exist, but none are democratic alternatives.”

Can we hold that, just that, as the goal?: to keep the conversation going? Not to convince each other, not even to understand each other, but simply, in the words of the pledge, “to seek to understand” others’ “concerns and aspirations”? For that, we must be in conversation: speaking honestly and listening openheartedly.

I have spoken before of my deeply conservative friend A. I am sorry to say she really is the only one—the only good friend I have who has a radically different political view to mine. I think this is a failing on my part. But there it is, and we start where we are. I knew that signing this pledge and writing this sermon were not the hard part, for me. The hard part is the conversation. The conversation I was afraid to have was with A.

So I wrote to her, sharing the Braver Angels guide to one-to-one Red/Blue conversations, and proposing that we have them. By e-mail, phone, or Zoom, as she chooses, since we live many hundreds of miles apart. They are quite structured, which may seem stilted for people who have known each other for years, but they guide the participants through a difficult conversation. After all, none of our political conversations have shed much light on each other’s concerns and aspirations in all those years. They’ve generated a lot of heat, but not much light. So we could use the guidance.

Braver Angels sets up these conversations between strangers, and that would be fascinating too, but I wanted to start with my friend. For us to ask each other questions such as these, and listen without cross-talk to the answers:

  • What life experiences have influenced your values and beliefs about politics and public policy? 
  • Why do you think your side’s values and policies are good for the country? 
  • What are your reservations or concerns about your own side?
  • What did you learn about the other person’s political perspective, and did you see anything in common? (“1-1 Red-Blue Conversations Guide,” accessed 11/8/20)

This is the Braver Angels pledge. “Regardless of how the election turns out, I will not hold hate, disdain, or ridicule for those who voted differently from me. Whether I am pleased or upset about the outcome, I will seek to understand the concerns and aspirations of those who voted differently and will look for opportunities to work with people with whom I disagree.” I urge you to consider this pledge, wrestle with it, and whether or not you can sign on to every word in it, to seek out those opportunities.

Let me leave you with one little example of how.

When Mary and I went to the With Malice Toward None orientation, I was multitasking. As I watched the Zoom orientation, I had my cellphone in my hand, and I was sending texts to voters in voter-suppression states. I was working as hard as I could for the victory of the candidate I thought was right for our country. It felt like just the right balance that Lincoln urged upon us. On the one hand, to carry on our struggle for justice, “With firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right”—to act upon our convictions as we are guided by conscience. And at the same time, precisely the same time, to seek to engage with those whose consciences pit them against us. To passionately strive for the right as we see it, while staying in the conversation with those who see it otherwise, treating them as people with dignity and worth.

We can’t go on. We’ll go on.

So may we do.

Chalice Extinguishing                      by Marianne Williamson     

“In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it.”