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Presented November 19, 2006, by Ellen Taylor
The opening words came to me from Bill Holden. I do not know who the original author is.
A driver did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection.
The tailgating woman behind him went ballistic, pounding on her horn and screaming in frustration as she missed her chance to drive through the intersection with him. Still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very serious police officer.
The officer ordered her to exit her car with her hands up. He took her to the police station where she was searched, fingerprinted, photographed and placed in a cell. After a couple of hours, a policeman approached the cell and opened the door. She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects.
He said, "I'm awfully sorry for this mistake. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping the guy off in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at him. I noticed the "Choose Life" license plate holder, the "What Would Jesus Do?" bumper sticker, the "Follow me to Sunday School" bumper sticker and the chrome plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk.
"Naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car."
By Rev. Dr. Robert J. S. Manning
Minister, Quincy Unitarian Church
I saw a different George Bush just the other day. Or I saw him differently. He was announcing Sadam Hussein's death sentence handed down by the court in Baghdad. Sure, there was still that familiar swagger and that controversial smirk, still that adolescent mask of fake confidence. But there was something else. Perhaps because it was outside and in the glare of the afternoon, but just then there was so much more to see in George Bush. There were decidedly grey hairs, an entire head of them, and so many lines in the face. There were several parallel lines that completely occupied his forehead. He looked so much older than he did when his friends stole the election for him. He looked, just then, as if he'd aged 20 years in the six years of his occupation of the White House.
At that moment a thought occurred to me that had never crossed my Bush-despising mind before. "Perhaps this has been even more of a nightmare for him than it has been for us," I wondered to myself. Perhaps he agonizes over every life we lose over there. Perhaps it kills him inside every time, everyday, Rumsfeld or Rice or Cheney tells him about how many soldiers we lost that day and how they were killed. Perhaps he insisted long ago to them--who would think, of course, that he doesn't really need to know about this--that he had to know about each and every death as each and everyone happened. So that he could stop right then and let it soak in, and ponder, and mourn, and think about the terrible consequence over and over again of what he decided, how his decisions so terribly affected other people. Perhaps he even said to them, from the very beginning, that he knew there were always accidents, collateral damage as it is called, but that for him they weren't just collateral damage, that they were people and he wanted to know about them too. Each time our bombs fell in the wrong place, or each time one of our soldiers wore down under the stress and killed or wounded someone who had no intention to harm anyone, he wanted to know about it, to at least know the number if not the names because numbers too can be mourned. And when things didn't go as well as planned, when things went spinning out of control, and Iraqis started killing Iraqis, Shiites killing Sunnis and Sunnis killing Shiites, when all this started to happen that was never supposed to happen, perhaps he said to them: "I want to know about every Iraqi who dies by anyone's violence. It doesn't matter to me whether they are Shiites or Sunnis or whether our forces killed them. I want to know, I need to know about everyone who dies by all this uncontrollable violence in Iraq."
And isn't it even possible that at the crucial time years ago, when people around the world were warning, and wary, and praying, and explaining why this war, the very idea of it, was not a wise thing to do, that he too, the younger George Bush without the lines and the grey hair, was warning and wary and praying. Maybe he was even saying himself right there in the White House what all the peace communities of the world, who assumed he wasn't listening, were saying to him. Maybe he was himself saying to Cheney, and Rice, and Rumsfeld: "But what if they don't greet us as liberators? What if there is no Iraqi government that could quickly take over? What if our soldiers have to stay there for months, even years, and be all that time exposed, vulnerable to sneak attacks with automatic weapons, and bombs, and even missiles? What if we start losing soldiers over there, one a day, even a couple a day, 40 a month, 60 a month, even more? How could I bear that? And what if the Sunnis start attacking the Shiites and the Shiites attack them back and Iraqis get killed by the dozens, by the hundreds, even by the thousands? What then?"
Isn't it possible that a much younger George Bush was asking these terrible, worrisome questions at that crucial time? And perhaps he was told then, reassured, by Cheney, and Rice, and Rumsfeld: "Relax. Don't worry. It won't happen. With the might of our military we will have a quick and overwhelming victory. In a few weeks, maybe a month, Sadam Hussein will be gone, history. A new Iraqi government will take over. The oil fields will be cranking and the revenues will pay for the reconstruction so the people will not be hungry, will not be suffering, will not be without electricity and basic services. And we will be out of there, in three months, maybe four."
And perhaps young George Bush was still wary, still warning, still worried, as he said to himself at the crucial time: "Look, these people are a lot smarter than I am. Rice even has a Ph.D. for God's sake. They understand this part of the world a lot better than I do. They have actually been to these places, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran. What do I have advisors for if not to take their advice and to listen to people who know a heck of a lot more than I do about these types of things?"
My congregation during these last difficult war years has sometimes been disappointed with me. I know there are some who have been disturbed, a bit, that when I talk about George Bush it's always with a sharp point, an angry edge. I've even said, and yes, all right, I admit it, more than once, that I hate George Bush,. Some members of the congregation, friends, who are wiser than I, have said to me that a deepening spirituality leads one away from hatred of anyone, brings to birth inside of one growing compassion for everyone, especially for those one disagrees with most strongly. I know, of course, they that are right, but I have never been able to do that, find compassion anywhere inside myself for that man, until that moment on that day, when the glare of the sun helped even me to see the grey hair and the forehead that was all lines.
(Rob's closing paragraph)
They say that one day the Buddha, who understood compassion, was sitting calmly amidst the tumult of his contentious students. They were arguing about points of his teaching, advancing their own interpretations. Finally, after hours of arguing with each other, the students couldn't take it anymore. They had to ask the Master: "Tell us. Which one of us understands you the best?" "The one who doesn't argue," he said, "but who sees the flower that is right in front of his face."
The police officer in the opening words made two assumptions based solely on the messages displayed on the woman's car. Assumption One was that the owner of the car was a Christian. Assumption Two was that, as a Christian, her behavior would fit within certain parameters. Although I guess we don't know for sure, Jesus is not traditionally portrayed as someone who would flip people off and curse at them.
So what about this joke did I think would be appropriate for a church talk? What struck me was that the messages we choose to advertise to the world on our bumpers naturally lead people to make certain assumptions about us, and that by displaying these messages, we commit to certain behaviors. What made me laugh at this joke is my own bias regarding the hypocrisy of many who call themselves devout.
Because so many Unitarians come to this church from other traditions, we tend to be people who have rejected something else, and thus share a wariness of those claiming to be devout.
We know there is a wide range of beliefs among those who call themselves Christian, as there is among any group of people. It is this disparity within Christianity that causes me to hesitate when people ask if I'm a Christian. Do they mean "Christian" like the Kansas minister who picketed Matthew Shephard's funeral with a sign that said, "God hates fags" or "Christian" like Clarence Jordan, whose work led eventually to Habitat for Humanity? Personally, I see nothing at all Christ-like in proclaiming that God hates fags. I see something very Christ-like in the work of people like Jordan. But it's not up to me to determine whether or not someone else's claimed label is valid. When asked if I'm Christian, I often qualify my answer. If "Christian" is defined as someone who believes the teachings of Jesus are worth following, then yes, I can accept the Christian label. If "Christian" is defined strictly as someone who believes that Jesus was God incarnate whose death somehow saved the rest of us, then no, I can't claim that label.
And maybe it's because of Shakespeare's "the lady doth protest too much" that I'm a little suspicious of people who talk too much about being devout. Even the Bible takes these people on. When I hear people talk about being Christian or see them praying at the flagpole, I'm reminded of a Bible verse, believe it or not. In Matthew Chapter 6, verse 5 says, "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men ." Verses 6 and 7 go on to encourage private prayer. I'm also reminded of a story my mother told me when I was in my early teens. She said that one day when she was in high school some boys were bragging about how many cans of beer they had consumed the night before. Mom asked, "Were you drinking them or counting them?"
So I can't help but wonder when people start banging the Christian drum too loudly how devout they really are. How do they have time to pray when they spend so much time talking about praying? Do they make any effort to emulate Jesus or do they just talk about him? This phenomenon is not limited to Christianity, of course; it can be said of the drum-bangers of any religion, even Unitarianism.
So before we smirk too sanctimoniously at the woman in the joke, let's consider our own bumper stickers, what they say about us, and even what having bumper stickers in the first place says about us.
Until recent years, I had never had a bumper sticker. To me, it was like having a tattoo. I didn't want to put anything on my car that I might not be able to remove easily. And maybe in part because of my suspicion of drum-bangers, I didn't feel the need to publicly declare my opinions. People who know me probably know my opinions, and people who don't know me probably don't care about my opinions.
I've often wondered what people are thinking when they put bumper stickers or decals on their cars. I understand the reasoning behind candidate bumper stickers, but as campaigns are temporary, I've never been inclined to put a candidate's name on my bumper. Bumper stickers can be entertaining reading at stop lights, but I often see stickers or decals that make me assume things about the driver that aren't very nice, and these assumptions reflect my biases. For example, many bumper stickers and decals make me think the driver isn't very smart, and I realize that makes me a kind of snob.
Some bumper stickers are philosophical, such as "To be great is to be misunderstood," or "If you want peace, vote for justice." Some offer advice, such as "Don't believe everything you think," or "Never miss a good chance to shut up." Some are responsive, alluding to other bumper stickers or familiar cultural phenomena, as in "My child sold your honor student the answers to the test," or "born okay the first time." Some are just silly, like "Save an animal. Eat a vegetarian." And others are insulting, like those rear window decals with the little boy urinating on the word "Ford" or "Chevy."
For years I have wondered about the people who displayed those. I'm curious as to why someone who feels a deep loyalty to Chevrolet, for example, feels the need to publicly and continuously show such contempt for the other guy. To express a positive such as product endorsement as a negative seems unnecessary and just mean. If you feel that strongly that Chevies are better than Fords, what's wrong with a decal or sticker that says "I [heart] Chevrolet"? I think the skunk in Bambi had the right idea when he said, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." (I tell my kids that all the time.) No one likes to be around negative people.
Now, speaking of hypocrisy, I must acknowledge that even though I believe positive is better than negative, I put a negative, insulting bumper sticker in my car. I taped to the inside of my rear window a bumper sticker my friend Jody gave me that says, "Somewhere in Texas a village is missing its idiot." In displaying this sticker, I violated my own rule to follow the skunk's advice. My compromise with myself was to tape it in the window rather than affix it to the bumper. Thus I could rationalize it as a temporary digression.
My other bumper sticker could be considered drum-banging of sorts, I guess. "Proud to be a liberal" was born of my frustration with negativity and an effort to take a positive stand.
For the past several years, the far right has done an excellent job of co-opting our language, and while I don't want this to be a political talk, I must address the atmosphere of politics. Ultra-conservatives have been successful in making "liberal" a dirty word. And liberals have let them. When politicians and pundits refer to someone as liberal with such distaste, making it sound so awful - "he's a liberal" - we hear the tone of voice before we process the words and too often react defensively.
It takes two sides to have an argument, and name-calling loses its sting if there's no denial. It's just no fun to call people names if they don't mind it. Think of all the playground taunting that would die a quicker death if we refused to argue. "Am not" begs the "are too." What would happen if, when faced with "Tommy has a girlfriend" at recess, instead of "do not," little Tommy replied with a grin, "Yeah."
My favorite adult equivalent of that hypothetical playground conversation is, sadly, fictional. In An American President, Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shephard, whose political opponent, played by Richard Dreyfuss, repeatedly maligns him as a "card-carrying member of the ACLU," among other things. The president ignores the attacks, deeming them unworthy of response, but finally realizes he must respond. In an unexpected appearance at a White House press briefing, he says (and I paraphrase) "Of course I'm a member of the ACLU. This is an organization whose sole purpose is to uphold the Bill of Rights. As an American citizen, why would I not support an organization dedicated to preserving that which our forefathers wrote into our Constitution?"
My frustration with the right wing smear of the word "liberal" and the lack of left wing response to that smear is what prompted me to have the "proud to be a liberal" bumper stickers printed shortly after the 2004 election. It was my feeble imitation of the fictional President Shephard's response. I was also thinking of a decal I had noticed during the campaign. This decal in a car window was that of the little boy urinating. This time, the words under the little boy were "Democrats and liberals." I knew the driver slightly and I wanted to ask him if he realized that was me he was dissing. The liberal-conservative argument has become so vitriolic (from both sides), that we too often focus on each other rather than on the issues at hand.
A few weeks ago there was a letter to the editor in the Herald Whig accusing liberals of wanting to allow terrorists to blow up America. That statement is ridiculous. But more importantly, it serves no useful purpose; it does nothing to solve the issue. Conservatives and liberals, whether in politics or religion, have different perspectives on just about every issue, from the issues Doug Muder discussed last week to terrorism. And we will probably never see eye to eye. But if there is any hope of coming to some kind of reasonable solution on any issue, we have to stop the "am not- are too" shouting matches and have reasonable discussions. And we need to focus these discussions on the issues, not each other. Namecalling isn't getting us anywhere.
Having said that, I'll now say, by all means, call me a liberal. The definition of the word, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is generous, open-minded, tolerant, favoring civil and political liberties and protection from arbitrary authority. I see those as desirable attributes and would be flattered if people ascribed them to me. From what I've observed, I'd say many of you share these traits, whether or not you claim the "liberal" label.
But if I am to claim this label - "liberal" - and announce it to the world via my bumper, to what behaviors am I committing myself? Well, cursing and flipping off other drivers doesn't seem to fit with generous, tolerant, and favoring protection from arbitrary authority, so I can't do that. And working on this talk made me think hard about the hypocrisy of displaying the insulting bumper sticker. Calling George Bush the village idiot - whether he is or isn't - serves no useful purpose and doesn't really fit with generous and tolerant either, so last week, probably around the same time Rob had his glimmer of compassion for the man, I removed that sticker from my car window.
As a liberal, I support political candidates who value civil liberties and who do not seek to impose an inordinate amount of arbitrary authority. I also feel obligated to consider other people's points of view and put myself in their shoes before being too critical, and the Unitarian in me respects everyone's right to seek his own truth, even when it differs from mine. Rob's ruminations on a possible George W Bush are a good example of how we can consider others' perspectives and have compassion even for those with whom we disagree most strongly. This too can help guide us to discussion of difficult issues and away from the vitriolic namecalling.
In the end, just as the road rage of the woman in the opening joke overshadowed the messages on her car, our actions are far more important than any words we may use to describe ourselves or preach to others. Thus it would behoove all of us to pay more attention to our behaviors than we do to the labels on our bumpers.
Live your life in such a way that no one ever assumes you've stolen your own car.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.